Imagination and Apple, sitting in a tree, l-i-c-e-n-s-i-n-g GPU tech semi-secretly: Brit chip designer strikes iGiant deal

Meanwhile, Samsung semiconductor fab hit by power cut

UK-based graphics chip designer Imagination Technologies has inked a new licensing deal with Apple.

In a very brief announcement on Thursday, Imagination confirmed it had struck an agreement to replace the one Apple had abruptly cancelled in 2017.

"[Imagination] has replaced the multi-year, multi-use license agreement with Apple, first announced on February 6, 2014, with a new multi-year license agreement under which Apple has access to a wider range of Imagination’s intellectual property in exchange for license fees," the release reads.

Apple was using Imagination's PowerVR GPU designs in its gear, including iPhones and iPads, before the Cupertino giant pledged to design its own graphics processors and publicly dumped Imagination – a move that cost the Brit biz a hefty chunk of its annual revenues and caused its stock price to crash.

However, despite this grand public shift to its own homegrown GPU silicon, it is understood Apple continued to quietly pay annual licensing fees to Imagination for products it was still shipping that featured Imagination's intellectual property. For example, we've heard that the MacBook Pro Touch Bar used, or still uses, a PowerVR GPU.

For this new deal, we envisage it covers one or more of these three scenarios: that Apple will continue to use PowerVR GPUs in its products in some form or another, alongside its own homegrown GPUs, and thus needs to pay for that technology; that Apple's homegrown GPUs in some way involve PowerVR patents or intellectual property, and thus fees are due; or that Apple may, or will, directly incorporate PowerVR technology into its own GPUs.

We suspect the first two cases are the most likely, though from the wording of the announcement, all three outcomes are on the table: Apple can use, as it sees fit, more PowerVR technology in exchange for cash, basically.

Imagination, which in December unveiled its tenth-generation PowerVR family, isn't saying much more, and we don't expect the notoriously tight-lipped Apple to reveal details on its end. Note that no financial numbers were disclosed, so we don't know the scale of the agreement.

It is hoped that the deal, whatever its form, will bring further long-term stability for Imagination, which relies on licensing its chip blueprints to vendors who then fabricate the designs for use in their own products. It endured a rocky second half of the 2010s, and was rescued by private equity in 2017. As mentioned, it set out a roadmap of its latest PowerVR generation at the end of last year, starting with its A-series of designs.

"We can’t comment on today’s announcement, but I think it's one of several things Imagination has to feel good about as we head into 2020," Imagination chief marketing officer David Harold told El Reg today.

"We feel resurgent. Great new leadership, some excellent new senior talent, a groundswell of engagement in China, the launch of our best GPU ever to date in A-Series, and the industry starting to understand the value of ray tracing. And we're excited about new opportunities in the coming year." ®

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