They are squaring off in the marketplace, the courtroom and even the chip supply line.
South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. overtook Apple Inc. to become the top buyer of semiconductors in 2012, according to market research firm Gartner Inc.
Samsung and Apple—longtime collaborators that have become contentious as they slug it out for global dominance in smartphones and tablets—consumed a combined 15 percent of all chips in 2012, according to Gartner. Together, they bought $45.3 billion worth of semiconductors last year, up nearly $8 billion from 2011, according to the firm.
All of this in a difficult economic year when the semiconductor industry declined by an estimated 3 percent.
"Although Samsung and Apple continue to go from strength to strength, other leading electronic equipment makers fared less well, and six of the top 10 reduced their demand in 2012," said Masatsune Yamaji, principal research analyst at Gartner, in a statement.
According to Yamaji, in addition to the weak macroeconomic climate, the semiconductor market underwent a dramatic change in 2012 as consumers shifted interest away from desktop and mobile PCs to tablets and other mobile computing devices. The PC market still represented the largest sector for chip demand, though, Yamaji said.
"This shift caused a substantial decrease in semiconductor demand in 2012, as the semiconductor content of a smartphone or a media tablet is far less than that of a PC," Yamaji said.
The 10 largest buyers of semiconductors consumed $106.4 billion worth of chips in 2012—a whopping 36 percent of total semiconductor revenue, according to Gartner. And while six of the top 10 buyers decreased their purchases in 2012, Nokia dropped the most—a precipitous 42.6 percent, Gartner said.
According to Yamaji, while the growth of smartphones and tablets can't fully compensate for the drop in semiconductor demand by the PC market, data center and communications infrastructure growth will continue to drive demand for chips.
"The limited computing and storage resources of new mobile computing devices will be compensated for by cloud computing services with light application software," Yamaji said.