MADISON, Wis. – Apple has notified Imagination Technologies Group, a key GPU core licenser to Apple for years, that it will no longer use Imagination’s intellectual property in new products.
Imagination disclosed the Apple cutoff on Monday (April 3).
For the U.K.-based graphics IP firm, whose GPU core technologies have been intrinsic to Apple’s phones, tablets, iPods, TVs and watches, this is undoubtedly a devastating blow.
However, members of the GPU community, who’ve been aware of Apple’s hiring binge on GPU talent, tend to regard this as an inevitable development.
Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research, noted that he does not think Imagination can continue as an independent company without Apple. “I expect it will be for sale, especially at the lower stock price.”
Imagination’s struggle has been publicly known for some time.
Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research added, “Imagination has been losing design wins to ARM and Vivante, and the acquisition of MIPS has not helped the company. Like MIPS, the competition in GPUs became more competitive and the company became complacent.”
Legal battle emerging?
When Imagination made the announcement Monday, the graphics core licensor framed the news as “Discussions with Apple regarding license agreement.” Imagination said Apple's notification had triggered talks on alternative commercial arrangements for the current license and royalty agreement.
In its press release, Imagination quoted Apple, saying that [Apple] “has been working on a separate, independent graphics design in order to control its products and will be reducing its future reliance on Imagination’s technology.”
Imagination, however, also made it clear that it is “extremely challenging for Apple to design a brand new GPU architecture from basics” without violating Imagination's patents, intellectual property and confidential information.
In other words, there might be a legal battle ahead.
Tirias Research’s Krewell agreed. “I do expect Imagination will look for legal remedies and I agree it's very difficult to build a new GPU without infringing on patents held by Imagination.”
He speculated, “This could be the start of negotiation between Apple and Imagination for how much Imagination's IP is worth.” He added, “Most power and memory bandwidth sensitive mobile GPU use tile-based, deferred rendering and Imagination has some patents, but so do AMD, ARM, and NVIDIA.”
“This has been a long time coming,” Krewell said.
Because GPUs are abstracted by API like DirectX, OpenGL, and Vulkan, “one GPU can be replaced with a functionally equivalent GPU,” Krewell said. “It happens in PCs all the time.” He added, however, the GPU inside an SoC is harder to replace. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, though. "Vendors like Samsung and MediaTek have used both ARM's Mali with Imagination PowerVR," he noted.
Apple's modifying Power VR IP
It's been rumored that Apple has been developing internal graphics technology for many years.
Krewell said, “It's believed that the GPU in Apple’s A series of SoC processor have been using Apple designed logic in the GPU building on, but modifying, PowerVR IP.” In his view, “Apple may have reached the point where it can replace even the basic PowerVR IP with its own designs.”
David Kanter, president of Real World Technologies, first published last October his own analysis entitled "A Look Inside Apple’s Custom GPU for the iPhone." In that piece, Kanter wrote:
After years of recruiting graphics architects, Apple has designed its own custom GPU, which is already shipping in the A8, A9, and A10 processors that power the iPhone 6, 6S, and 7. The GPU in Apple’s processors still retains some fixed-function hardware from PowerVR, but based on publicly available evidence it is clear that the shader core in Apple’s GPU is architecturally very different from Imagination Technologies PowerVR line. This further implies that Apple wrote its own Metal and OpenGL ES compiler for its GPUs and almost certainly wrote the entire driver as well.
Next page: Smoking gun?