Imagination's Struggles Worsen As Apple Plans To Build Its Own GPU Technology

Imagination Technologies announced that Apple plans to stop using its chips within 15 to 24 months. The company’s share price has dropped more than 60% since the announcement this morning, likely because investors knew Apple’s business was critical for Imagination's success.

Imagination’s Partnership With Apple

Imagination and Apple have had a rather strong partnership almost since the launch of the iPhone. The two companies signed a licensing deal back in the fall of 2008, a year after the iPhone was first released. Since then, Apple has had a powerful mobile GPU in its smartphones and tablets, and Imagination has seen its business and revenues skyrocket along with the popularity of the iPhone.

Through the entirety of this partnership, Apple has represented around half of Imagination’s business. Last year, in an earnings report, the GPU company even said Apple is the only "essential" customer it has.

Risky Business

Apple dropping Imagination has always been a risk for the GPU company, especially when so much of its revenues relied on it. If Apple was willing to hire a team to create its own ARM CPU core, that meant it wasn’t that far-fetched to believe that it may do the same for the GPU (a component of a System-on-a-Chip that’s almost as important) in the not-too-distant future.

Imagination tried to make an impact in the mobile CPU market by acquiring MIPS, but that attempt fizzled out, meaning the $70 million it paid for the MIPS technology was mostly wasted. Imagination was likely worried that in the future ARM could tie its CPUs to its GPUs, which may leave it out of the mobile market, or at least maybe bring some significant drawbacks for its GPUs.

However, if even Intel couldn’t break into the ARM-dominated mobile CPU market, chances were much smaller for Imagination to do that with an even less popular CPU architecture.

Imagination fired 20% of the company’s 1,700 employees last year in an effort to improve profitability and cut unnecessary costs. The company also seemed to want to show Apple that it was in good shape, because only a week after that announcement, Apple confirmed that it was in talks with Imagination about an acquisition. However, it seems that the acquisition talks failed, and Apple said it had no plans to buy the company.

Apple To Make Its Own GPUs

Imagination revealed today that Apple was going to stop licensing its GPU technology about two years from now, which likely means that Apple has already been working on its own mobile GPU for iPhones, iPads, and potentially other product lineups.

In its announcement, Imagination said that it’s unlikely Apple’s own GPU wouldn’t infringe on its own graphics technology. The GPU company seems to imply that it may sue Apple if it finds infringing technology. It’s unlikely that this is a threat made to stop Apple from using its GPUs, as such statements probably didn’t make Imagination any friends at Apple. What’s more likely is that Imagination expects to be paid some royalties even after Apple starts shipping its own GPUs.

Apple is not the type of company to back down from a patent fight, and in fact, it has often been the one to start patent fights against Android OEMs. This battle could tie Imagination in courts for years, too. That much money and energy could be better spent in trying to win some other major customers in the market, perhaps someone such as Samsung. MediaTek seems to have moved back to PowerVR with the Helio X30 this year, so anything is possible, especially if Imagination is willing to offer Samsung a good deal.

Imagination still has a little over a year left to find new customers, but it’s going to take a herculean effort, and likely some significant compromises on licensing prices, to get those customers. Either way, losing Apple as a major customer is going to significantly hurt its revenues and its image.

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • bit_user
    Wow. And it really seemed like they were onto something, with their realtime ray tracing.
  • Doron_
    it is so going to suck.....
  • 1991ATServerTower
    Yeah, let's see Apple "magically" produce a mobile GPU that doesn't infringe on the patents related to PowerVR, Adreno/Radeon, or Geforce technology. Given how Apple poached people from Imagination, it's pretty clear that Apple intends to simply steal the technology now and let the courts sort it out later.

    Anything to make a buck, eh Apple?
  • daviddever
    The TI AM335x processor used in the BeagleBone requires a proprietary binary blob from Imagination to enable SGX5xx graphics acceleration support; unlike Broadcom, they don't have the weight of a product such as the Raspberry Pi to drive open-source driver support within the Linux kernel.

    And then there's these boat anchors: