A few years ago the semiconductor industry was all about phones and tablets. Today, emerging markets are opening up a host of new opportunities for developers of systems-on-chip (SoCs), according to Sir Hossein Yassaie, CEO of semiconductor IP provider Imagination Technologies Ltd.
Yassaie gave the opening keynote address at the Design Automation Conference (DAC 2014) Monday morning, June 2. The speech was titled "The Great SoC Challenge (IP to the Rescue!)" and it revealed much about the challenges that IP and SoC developers face.
Yassaie opened by declaring that the "semiconductor industry is a little bit different. We do amazing stuff in this industry. Every year it gets better and it also gets cheaper. My conclusion is that love defines what we do, not logic."
Spreading the love a bit further, Yassaie said that "there are some amazing engineers and ingenuous people in your [EDA] industry who create incredible tools that allow people like me to create unbelievable solutions in the form of chips and software that change the world. I do appreciate your effort and I value your love for what you do."
The IP Developer's Dilemma
While third-party IP is indispensible for the design of most SoCs, those who create the IP face a tough challenge. Yassaie noted that it takes six or seven years to transition from starting the development of a new graphics chip to having end products out in the market. "So we have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars six years ahead of the market," he said. "It is very easy to create the wrong thing."
So what to do? First, said Yossaie, understand the industry and how it may evolve. This is akin to predicting the impact of the Internet and the cloud in the early 1990s. Secondly, get familiar with consumer trends and behavior. Third, stay in touch with new technology trends. "I think it is very important for engineers to play a role in this process," he said.
Following are some trends that Yossaie said will change the semiconductor industry:
- Smartphones and tablets are maturing. Some of their features will migrate to other devices.
- Wearables are an important new category, and will help provide health care monitoring.
- Applications are becoming more portable.
- Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity and cloud data will help spur massive innovation.
- Security of data is becoming a major focus.
- Moore's law is breaking down from a cost standpoint, but that doesn't matter, because whether you're at 16nm or 90nm, it's the end product that counts.
Yassaie sees big opportunities in wearables, home wireless "for everything," advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), intelligent transport, and "big data." The IoT will play an important role in such areas as health monitoring, energy savings, and agriculture. "I believe we are at an inflection point because we have a whole new host of segments and markets," he said. But to take advantage of these opportunities, he noted, semiconductor companies must have domain knowledge.
"Semiconductor companies need to change and realize they are not just semiconductor companies," Yassaie said. "They must understand the end markets they target. If you want to get into health care or automotive, you really need to have domain knowledge to succeed."
Yassaie spent some time talking about Imagination "so people know who we are." Many people assume Imagination is a graphics IP company. The company does provide GPUs, but it also offers video and vision IP and platforms, and has general-purpose processors through its acquisition of MIPS 18 months ago.
It took vision to create the company. In the 1990s, Yassaie became convinced that graphics would become integrated into mobile devices. He tried to get mobile providers interested, but was told he was wasting his time because there weren't enough pixels. And today, thanks to the semiconductor industry, there are lots of pixels.
Looking ahead at graphics, Yassaie sees ongoing progress. Graphics processors are close to 50 gigaflops at the low end, and are reaching 256 gigaflops in high-end mobile devices. Mobile GPUs are now 200X faster than the first smartphones, and they've kept power consumption low. In the near future, Yassaie said, everyone will be able to participate in graphics content creation.
Yassaie's conclusions: Winners of the next wave will be those who leverage IP and focus on market and system knowledge. A wide envelope of process nodes will be need. And SoCs are not just about the chip—software, ecosystems, and domain knowledge all matter. "Semiconductor companies will need to change, but I am optimistic about the future," he said.
Note: Yassaie was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth in Her Majesty's New Year Honors 2013. The award was given in recognition of his services to technology and innovation.
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