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Imagination Technologies throws in the towel following Apple low blow

Imagination duck

UK low-power chip designer Imagination Technologies has announced the whole company is now up for sale, following the impending loss of its biggest customer – Apple.

Back in April Apple announced it was going to terminate its longstanding business relationship with Imagination at the end of the current deal. Imagination’s core business area is the design of low-power graphics chips, which Apple has been using in its SoC family from the start. The business model is similar to ARM’s and Apple is by far Imagination’s biggest customer.

The reason companies like Apple pay licensing fees and royalties to companies like Imagination is that chip design is a very complicated and specialised business and it generally makes more sense to outsource the work to a specialist rather than try to reinvent the wheel in-house. But not many companies are as large and rich as Apple.

Prior to the launch of the A-series SoCs Apple bought a small chip designer called PA Semi, which formed the nucleus of its in-house chip division. Apple has presumably been adding talent in the intervening decade and learning how to do everything itself, but it won’t be easy to prove its own silicon doesn’t contain any Imagination IP, which is why Imagination commenced a dispute resolution procedure soon after the Apple announcement.

But regardless of how that process goes, Imagination seems to have been mortally wounded by the Apple decision. Alongside the dispute resolution procedure Imagination also announced it was actively trying to sell two of its business units: MIPS embedded processors and Ensigma low-power connectivity. Today’s announcement throws the rest of the group into the pot, which mainly means the PowerVR GPU business that Apple is abandoning.

“Imagination Technologies Group plc announces that over the last few weeks it has received interest from a number of parties for a potential acquisition of the whole Group,” said the announcement. “The Board of Imagination has therefore decided to initiate a formal sale process for the Group and is engaged in preliminary discussions with potential bidders.”

This seems to imply that the MIPS/Ensigma sales process unearthed some potential buyers that expressed an interest in the rest of the company too. The question is: who? The first company that springs to mind is Softbank, mainly because this is the sort of thing it seems to be into at the moment. But the ARM acquisition means there would be a fair bit of product overlap so maybe not.

Another possibility would be a specialist IP licensing company – sometimes referred to as patent trolls – for which the main interest may be a combination of the relative cheapness of Imagination and the possibility of winning a big award from Apple. Imagination’s share price fell off a cliff after the Apple announcement and was already way below its 2012 peak, so it could be a bargain for an acquirer that knows what it’s doing. The share price opened up around 17% on the news of the sale.


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