Apple’s brutal breakup with Imagination is a warning to its other partners

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

You know when your significant other begs and pleads for you not to break up with them? Maybe even going so far as to threaten to wreck your stuffor worse? That’s what Imagination sounds like in its press release, which revealed Apple just dumped the company like a boyfriend who’d sent one too many texts.

If you don’t know Imagination, a little background: The company built and maintained the graphics engine in the iPhone, eventually spreading to all of Apple’s mobile gadgets the iPad, Apple Watch and even the venerable iPod. Apple’s has an 8 percent stake in the company and has been working with it for almost a decade, integrating Imagination’s graphics tech within its homegrown chips (all those “A” chips you hear about at each iPhone release). This was a long-term relationship, for sure.

But now Apple wants out of their relationship, determined to take development of its mobile graphics in-house. This is bad news for Imagination because about half of its revenue depends on Apple’s business. Its statement toggles from threatening (doubting Apple’s ability to make graphics engines that don’t infringe on its patents) to desperate (emphasizing its willingness to consider “alternative commercial arrangements”). Just stay with us! No strings!

It’s understandable: Apple and Imagination have been dating for almost a decade, and, as the graphics provider for the iPhone, it’s fair to say Imagination was responsible for a lot of what made the phone so impressive, especially in the early days. That natural, buttery-smooth response to touch, fast gaming animations that don’t kill the battery, low-lag AR apps all that’s Imagination.

And Imagination has some legit grievances: Apple has apparently hired away a couple of their people prior to today’s breakup and has been developing its own in-house graphics tech. That’s not quite “cheating,” but it’s pretty close. I can only imagine the talent exodus that’s about to befall Imagination now that the company’s stock has tumbled more than 60 percent.

That’s why Imagination’s threats over intellectual property probably aren’t just a teary-eyed breakup rant: Imagination holds many patents with regard to mobile graphics tech, and, given that it has nothing to lose now, I’m sure it won’t wouldn’t hold back from suing Apple if it thinks it has a case.

That said, it would be a mistake to read too much into Apple’s supposed silence when Imagination asked them for evidence that Apple’s new, in-house tech wouldn’t violate patents. Apple says it’s phasing out Imagination over the next two years, and it could very well be planning to license the patents it needs to (from Imagination or others). Imagination more or less alluded to leaving the door open for exactly this when it mentioned those alternative arrangements.

This all still leaves the question: Why would Apple do this? The company’s not talking (we only know about any of this because Imagination put out a press release), but I see 3 possible explanations:

  1. It saves money. This is the Occam’s Razor option. Apple may simply believe it can save money in the long term by doing its own graphics tech. And not just on that technology alone the chip (really several chips integrated) is by far the most complex part of the iPhone, so the more you can consolidate its design, the more money you can save in other parts of the process.

  2. Imagination’s product was no longer good enough. Apple is certainly projecting out to the next couple of iPhones after this year’s model, and maybe they just didn’t like what Imagination was showing them. Possibly related: Imagination’s efforts lately have focused on making mobile VR and AR applications more efficient. While those are certainly trendy technologies in mobile right now, Apple hasn’t publicly expressed much interest in either (off-the-cuff comments from Tim Cook notwithstanding).

  3. Apple hates it when the tail wags the dog. Given Apple’s shocking lawsuit against Qualcomm, it’s clear Apple isn’t shy about throwing its weight around to ensure suppliers fall in line with its desires. It hasn’t been revealed what was going on behind the scenes, but the fact that Imagination went public so suddenly, with veiled threats of legal action, isn’t an indicator of an amicable breakup.

Most likely, it’s a combination of all three factors. It’s probably too late for Imagination to win Apple back, but the breakup should serve as a warning to all other iPhone suppliers, especially ones whose existence depends on the relationship: Yes, you clearly should diversify, but always make sure your partner’s needs are put first. And that breakup threat is not a bluff.

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