Intel, TSMC Atom partnership hits a roadblock
Earlier New York Times reported Feb. 25 that the partnership between Intel and TSMC had been placed on hiatus due to lack of customer demand. The report quoted Robert Crooke, general manager of Intel's Atom and SoC development group, saying that the chip giant has not given up on the partnership.
Intel spokesperson Bill Kircos said no TSMC-manufactured Atoms are on the immediate horizon, though he added that the companies have achieved several hardware and software milestones and said they would continue to work together.
"It's been difficult to find the sweet spot of product, engineering, IP and customer demand to go into production," the Kircos said.
Intel said last March it would port unspecified Atom processor cores to TMSC's technology platform, including processes, IP, libraries and design flows. The deal—the first in which Intel would transfer a processor technology outside to a silicon foundry—was widely seen as Intel's attempt to beef up its presence in the embedded space, where the architecture of ARM Holdings plc dominates.
The delay in moving Atom products into production at TSMC appears to signal slower-than-expected progress on execution of Intel's strategy to grow revenue outside of the PC market by pushing its x86 architecture deeper into to the embedded market and elsewhere.
Intel has been trying for years to grow revenue outside of the PC space, where its microprocessors dominate.
Last year the company made a series of moves seen as gearing up for a broader push into new markets—including the TSMC deal, the acquisition of embedded software specialist Wind River Systems Inc. and the Rs.5,772.13 crore ($1.25 billion) settlement of longstanding legal issues with microprocessor rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Placing its partnership with TSMC on hiatus would appear to cast doubt on Intel's strategy to grow revenue by driving its x86 architecture beyond the PC to the embedded market and elsewhere.
Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at market research firm In-Stat, said placing the TSMC partnership on hold does not mean Intel's x86 will fail to make further inroads into the embedded and consumer markets. But he said Intel's quest will require patience.
"It takes time. It takes a lot of time," McGregor said. "They have to build a relationship and build the product. You can't just flip a switch."
McGregor noted that companies using ARM or MIPS architectures to build embedded and consumer products currently have many choices of chip vendors, something that would change if they moved to x86, where Intel is the only choice. Moving to an x86 architecture would also require huge changes in design and software, McGregor said.
"Intel, by some accounts, is guilty of its own success," McGregor said. "No matter what, they are skewed as the 800-pound gorilla when they enter a new market." This adds a layer of concern for anyone considering doing business with Intel, McGregor said.
Still, McGregor believes Intel is bound to propagate x86 deeper into other markets beyond the PC. He noted that x86 now dominates in the field of medical imaging systems, whereas 12 years ago the Power PC architecture reigned supreme in the niche. Intel's embedded group already has more than Rs.9,235.40 crore ($2 billion) in annual revenue, McGregor said.
"Intel is targeting hundreds of applications with Atom," McGregor said. "Some they'll win, some they won't. The area will they will probably have the biggest initial impact is embedded applications."
McGregor added that he had received no official word that the Intel-TSMC partnership is on hold. But, he said to his knowledge TSMC has not manufactured any Atom products for Intel. "As far as I know, Intel has not secured the volume of design wins that would necessitate that," McGregor said.
- Dylan McGrath
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