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Apple-Samsung silicon union still strong, chip expert says

For all the bad blood over smartphones, a coziness remains when it comes to Samsung-made chips, says the chief of VLSI Research. "Apple has been ... learned how to work that relationship."

Samsung-made 64-bit Apple A7 processor.
Samsung makes the highly-praised 64-bit Apple A7 processor.

Call it a habit that Samsung and Apple just can't break.

Their critical partnership in silicon is still strong, according to the CEO of chip industry tracker VLSI Research, Dan Hutcheson, who spoke with CNET in a phone interview, after returning from a trip to South Korea, the land of Samsung.

This came as a surprise to Hutcheson, who last year had all but written off Samsung as a supplier to Apple of future processors and other silicon.

"Just before the holidays I got [told] that this was going on. It was a big surprise," he said.

Until then, Hutcheson believed that Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), the world's largest contract chip manufacturer (aka foundry), was going to get most of Apple's future processor business. That yet-to-come business would include processor generations beyond -- or derivative of -- the current A7 chip, which powers the iPhone 5S, iPad Air, and iPad Mini Retina.

"In the summertime, Samsung's [manufacturing] fabs were running pretty empty," he said. "And then all of a sudden they started coming back."

And Hutcheson claims there's an interesting wrinkle to Samsung's strategy. "More interesting is that Samsung is working with [US-based] Globalfoundries to try to keep Apple out of TSMC," he said. "There's a relationship [with Globalfoundries] that's extending beyond the Common Platform," a collaboration between IBM, Samsung and Globalfoundries, he said.

"It makes sense," he said, "because Global and Samsung have very similar [production] processes. And it makes sense if you're Samsung. TSMC is the world's largest foundry, they're the most profitable foundry, the 800-pound gorilla."

So even though Apple may do business with TSMC in the future (not to mention Intel), its bond with Samsung remains strong, despite their rivalry in devices and their ongoing legal acrimony.

"You have to understand that it's not so much [about] TSMC as much as it's that Apple has been with Samsung for a long time and learned how to work that relationship," he said.

And what about Globalfoundries, which has a giant, new multibillion chip plant in the upstate New York town of Malta?

"Malta is beginning to ramp now," he said. "And don't forget, they just got another $10 billion funding infusion. They've got plenty of floor space [in the plant] to expand."

See also: The chips of Samsung's Galaxy S5 -- Exynos and Snapdragon