The latest rumors and unconfirmed reports from the semiconductor industry's most interesting soap opera of the moment.
Another week, another bucket full of reports, rumors and conjecture regarding the fate of Toshiba's semiconductor business.
As of this writing, the unit -- valued primarily for its attractive (for now) NAND flash operations -- remains unsold. The list of potential bidders continues to trickle out, though confirmations of any actual bids are few and far between.
The very latest is that Apple -- which has been rumored to be a potential buyer of the business for more than two weeks -- is indeed reportedly weighing making a bid.
The operative word here, as it has been throughout this saga, is reportedly. That's because nobody from Toshiba is confirming anything officially, and Apple representatives don't talk to anyone at all except at splashy product rollouts or without a 400 page binding non-disclosure agreement notarized and in place.
As Jim Handy, principal analyst at Objective Analysis, told EE Times this week, "This whole deal has been so full of rumors and leaks, it's hard to tell what's real."
In fact, Handy said he typically circulates breaking news with relevance to the memory chip industry among clients as soon as he sees it. But in the case of the Toshiba chip business sale, Handy has held off on pressing the send button because so much of what is being reported is absolutely unsubstantiated. "It's really hard to separate the wheat from the chaff on this one," Handy said.
Nevertheless, we have endeavored to compile a list of the latest developments in this drama, nearly all of which have been reported by reputable outlets, nearly always citing anonymous sources:
NEXT PAGE: Apple in the mix?
Apple in the mix
The report that Apple is considering entering the bidding, though it was originally reported by the Yomiuri Shimbun late last month, gets the most attention because, well, it's Apple.
This rumor picked up steam and credence this week when Japan's national public broadcasting organization, NHK, said Apple is considering teaming up with Foxconn to bid for the memory chip business. According to the report, which has been picked up far and wide, Apple itself is considering buying a 20 percent stake in the business.
The idea of Apple entering the boom-and-bust memory chip business is still a bit of a head scratcher, but as we reported earlier this week, the fact that it's even being reported by people with a straight face just goes to show how important NAND flash is at this particular moment in time, with the memory chip business soaring and with no successor to NAND on the immediate horizon.
Market research firm Gartner earlier this week became the latest to increase its forecast for the overall semiconductor business in 2017 based on prime conditions in the memory market. Gartner envisions increasing NAND prices and shortages in the near term, before an increase in capacity leads to a memory market correction in 2019. With Apple's sales being what they are, a few billion dollars to save the company headaches over the next two years doesn't seem that far fetched.
Also, the idea that Apple is joining forces with Foxconn, which makes iPhones and iPads and other Apple products on a contract manufacturing basis, sounds about right. Foxconn has been chomping at the bit to get its hands on the Toshiba NAND business, so much so that it reportedly is considering offering $27 billion for the business, about 50 percent more than Toshiba had hoped its sale would fetch. The Japanese government is said to be wary of letting Toshiba's memory chip technology fall into Chinese or Taiwanese hands, preferring instead a U.S. or -- better yet -- Japanese buyer. One wonders if Apple's involvement might make a deal palatable, even if the majority of the business goes to Foxconn.
NEXT PAGE: Western Digital throws a tizzy fit
Enter the U.S. International Trade Commision
Another wrinkle that could potentially complicate the Toshiba chip business sale is word that the U.S. International Trade Commision last week opened an investigation into allegedly unfair trade practices by Toshiba and some of its subsidiaries in response to a patent infringement suit brought by Taiwanese non-volatile memory vendor Macronix International Co.
Macronix filed the complaint against Toshiba last month, asking the ITC to stop the importation into the U.S. of Toshiba parts that allegedly violate three patents held by Macronix. The company announced last week that the ITC would investigate the matter and said that ff the ITC's investigation determines that Toshiba has committed unfair practices, the ITC could issue an exclusion order barring the importation of infringing parts into the U.S.
Macronix claims to rank fourth in the world in 3D stacked memory technology patents with 95 worldwide patents, compared to 44 for Toshiba.
As we know, ITC investigations can take years. It is not likely that the investigation itself would pose a threat to a potential sale of the unit, but any potential buyer may want to examine the matter to determine what exposure, if any, exists.
Toshiba may be doomed, anyway
And then of course there is this: while Toshiba is scrambling to sell of its very attractive chip business just to keep the rest of the company afloat, warts and all, Toshiba may not make it, anyway. The company itself said there is substantial doubt about its ability to survive earlier this week when it finally filed its quarterly financial statements, which its auditor refused to sign off on.
—Dylan McGrath is the editor-in-chief of EE Times.