Samsung is racing to beat TSMC to market with 14nm FinFET chips, after it already won this year by a hair when it launched a 20nm chip of its own in the Galaxy Alpha about two months before Apple launched its new iOS devices with the first 20nm TSMC-made chips.
If Samsung already has its 14nm chips in production, then the company will probably enjoy an even bigger lead on TSMC next year. It usually takes another two quarters or half a year to see chips land in devices, so we could see 14nm chips made by Samsung as early as next spring.
It's unclear who the first customer is, but it's likely to be Apple. The 14nm FinFET chips may not be for a smartphone or tablet, but for the Apple Watch. Right now everyone seems to be struggling to give their smartwatches more than a day or two of battery life, especially if they use LCD or AMOLED displays instead of the more efficient Mirasol panels from Qualcomm.
The main problem is that the batteries can't be too big; otherwise, the smartwatches become bulky and heavy, and the processors are too power-hungry for such small batteries. However, OEMs can't compromise too much on performance either, because these watches tend to run full-blown mobile operating systems under the simpler UIs.
Going to 14nm could either make the chips significantly more efficient, or cut the die size so the OEM -- in this case Apple -- can increase the size of the battery (which would add the drawbacks mentioned above). Samsung's 14nm FinFET chips could reportedly use 35 percent less electricity, or take 15 percent less space, compared to 20nm chips.
Samsung is currently supplying Apple with NAND flash and DRAM. This year was the first that Apple didn't use Samsung to manufacture its chips for iOS devices. If Samsung has indeed become Apple's supplier again for the Apple Watch and this deal goes well, then Apple may want Samsung to make its chips for iOS devices again. However, by autumn of next year, TSMC should have its own 16nm FinFET process ready as well, and Apple may choose to go with TSMC again or use both companies to manufacture its chips.
Samsung is also rumored to give AMD access to its 14nm process next year, although that may happen indirectly through the deal Global Foundries made with Samsung, in which it gets to use the same 14nm technology. Samsung's 14nm FinFET process, if adopted early by AMD as well, could put the company on a much more competitive track with Intel in the PC market. Intel has already begun making 14nm chips, but only in small quantities, and it won't be until the middle of next year that the company will begin mass production.