Can Ron Black Lead a Turnaround at Imagination?

Article By : Nitin Dahad

Ron Black, the recently appointed CEO of Imagination Technologies, is well aware that the prahics IP vendor has something to prove.

LONDON — Ron Black, the recently appointed CEO of Imagination Technologies, is well aware that the prahics IP vendor has something to prove.

Black took the helm of Imagination last month, following a very turbulent period in the company's history that included the loss of its largest and most important customer, Apple.

"I really think this is an iconic company that led the way in low-power, high-performance graphics," Black said in an interview with EE Times. "But in the last 18 months, it lost its No. 1 spot. I intend to bring it back there.”

Contrary to what some believe, Black insists that Imagination's technology today is more relevant than ever considering the rich data being generated in systems and how that is expected to grow with the rollout of 5G. “It’s going to be about graphics — turning data into informed insights," Black said. "Imagination is at the center of where the future is heading in terms of data.”

Imagination sees imaging playing a more important part in mobile, particularly in relation to artificial intelligence (AI). Typical applications for technology like its PowerVR Series3NX include the ability to take a photo of a product using the phone and carry out a visual search, which enables a purchase of the same product within seconds.

Black also said that connectivity is an important part of the business that often gets overlooked. When he first came aboard, Black said, there was some consideration being given to selling off the company's Ensigma wireless and broadcast IP business — something he decided against.

"When people talk about AR and VR systems, many of these won’t work without the connectivity," Black said. "It’s core to a lot of systems and especially in the internet of things (IoT) space. I believe in the system approach — the more you can help your customers architect their artificial intelligence systems with the GPUs and the neural-network accelerators and the connectivity, the better.”

Ron black, Imagination CEO
Ron Black, CEO of Imagination Technologies

Ensigma, founded in 1986 and acquired by Imagination Technologies for about $7.5 million in 2001, was originally focused on digital audio and speech processing and had customers like the BBC, BT, Hitachi, and Texas Instruments. It had also partnered with ARC International to develop an MP3 solution on the ARC processor (now part of Synopsys).

As part of Imagination, it has evolved to provide connectivity solutions for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, BLE, and IEEE 802.15.4, as well as low-power GNSS IP supporting GPS, GLONASS, Beidou, Galileo GNSS, and several satellite-based augmentation systems (SBAS) including WAAS and EGNOS. With its GNSS IP, Imagination is particularly focusing on connecting devices in IoT networks directly to satellites rather than to local communications networks. This will enable applications such as battery-powered remote IoT sensors and edge devices, wearables, and health monitors that need positioning, navigation, and timing services.

Providing more of the ecosystem is a key part of Black’s strategy. “We’ll focus on delivering more of the IP blocks and the software ecosystem and are considering growth both organically and inorganically [through acquisitions]," he said. "There’s huge opportunity for more performance in mobile phones, especially when you get to developing products like foldable phones.”

Given the company’s ownership (Chinese-backed investment firm Canyon Bridge), we asked Black his views about current U.S.-China relations. He wouldn’t be drawn into a direct response but commented, “Everyone is trying to find their niche in China, and China is investing heavily in tech. We are in the sweet spot, where we are clearly on both sides. The U.S. and Chinese economies are so intertwined that I trust that the two countries’ leadership will find a way forward.”

The practical reality is that both countries do indeed have a lot to lose, and history has proven that isolationism is not a winning policy — particularly in the age of global supply chains. At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland this week, Ken Hu, deputy chairman of Huawei, said that the technology industry relies heavily on a global supply chain and a global innovation ecosystem, so the U.S.-China trade war can only have a damaging effect on the industry and many of its companies.

Black said China represents just a third of Imagination's global business, but that the has great opportunity for growth in China.

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