ARM, Samsung agreement may point to future iPhone chips

ARM and Samsung announced an extension to their strategic partnership. Samsung makes the main ARM processor in the Apple iPhone.

Samsung's ARM chip road map may contain signposts to future iPhone processors. On Tuesday, ARM Holdings and Samsung Electronics extended their Strategic Long-Term Licensing Agreement, allowing Samsung to retain access to key ARM processor IP. For the iPhone, this may result in faster, more powerful models. Samsung currently makes the main processor, based on an ARM11 design, in the Apple iPhone.

Samsung ARM processor
Samsung ARM processor Samsung Semiconductor

"The agreement is an extension of the previous subscription license and will enable Samsung to obtain early access to new technology, including the recently announced ARM Cortex-A9 processor, and broad access to a wide range of ARM IP," according to a joint release. Samsung will use the technology in future products aimed at the wireless, digital consumer, and mobile internet device markets, the company said in a statement.

The roadmap shows the ARM Cortex-ABN core achieving 800MHz in 2008 and 1GHz in 2009. Samsung is also slated to transition from 90-nanometer technology to 65nm later this year and 45nm in the latter half of 2009, according to the road map.

In a November 2007 interview with IDG News Service, ARM's CEO Warren East, said "there will be iPhone II, III...if we do our job right, then [iPhones] will be based on future ARM products." Though the main iPhone processor has taken on an Area-51 Hanger 18 aura of mystery, even after countless teardowns, one thing is clear: it is an ARM1176 core, similar to Samsung's S5L8900. "We have looked at the die markings inside the package itself and the die markings have a number of 'S5L8900' and as near as I can tell that's what the processor is," said Greg Quirk at Semiconductor Insights. Samsung, historically tight-lipped about any iPhone-related questions, could not be reached for comment.

Samsung is not necessarily a shoo-in, according to Quirk. Though there is a very good chance Apple will continue to use Samsung, he pointed to the fate of media processor supplier PortalPlayer--which generated 90 percent of its sales from Apple's iPod: it was dropped from the iPod (though, ironically, Samsung picked up some of this business). On another front, Quirk expects future iPhones to use new Bluetooth/Wi-Fi technology from Marvell Technology.

Apple is expected to bring out new models later this year that offer better performance and support 3G for faster broadband connections.

Samsung ARM roadmap
Samsung ARM roadmap Samsung Semiconductor

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