Who Calls The Shots?

Hint: It isn’t the hardware or system companies.


By Kurt Shuler
Who REALLY calls the shots in chip design today?

That sounds like a stupid question. Who really calls the shots in chip design today? Well, chip designers of course.

But you’re wrong if you mean to say that the traditional semiconductor manufacturers are the ones who always do all the hefty work of chip design, including determining requirements, performing technical tradeoffs, modeling and even creating IP. Our industry is changing under our feet.

Don’t believe me?

“Systems” companies becoming “chip companies
Who would have thought that Apple (an end-device manufacturer or “systems company”) would acquire Palo Alto Semiconductor in 2008, or Intrinsity in 2010. Or that Dan Dobberpuhl and his P.A. Semi teammates would then leave Apple two years later to form Agnilux and then get acquired by Google, another “systems company.”

How about Oracle, an “IT company” acquiring the former Sun SPARC team? Or that Microsoft would design its own chips for the Xbox? Did you know that one of the inventors of the UltraSPARC processor is in Microsoft’s Strategic Software/Silicon Architectures group?

Even newer companies getting into chip design decisions
If the rumors floating around are true (see the Bloomberg article, “Facebook Is Said To Work With HTC On Mobile Phone For Mid-2013”), we’re likely to see a Facebook phone, and it may have silicon in it designed, or at least heavily specified, by Facebook employees who may have been former Apple employees. And we’ve already seen what Google has done determining the requirements, including silicon vendors, for the Nexus line of phones, probably with help from their Motorola Mobility employees.

It’s hard to tell from dice.com and monster.com which companies are really hiring SoC architects and RTL designers, but a quick scroll through your LinkedIn connection should be enough to tell you that something is changing in our industry!

User experience + time-to-market = optimize HW for the SW
What I think is happening is that tech companies are working their problems (or opportunities) backward. For their products, they are first determining the user experience they desire, their timeframe for delivering it, and then assessing their existing software and required new software to implement it.

The quickest way to get to a shipping product is to then optimize the hardware to meet the requirements of the software. That is why mobile phone companies have chip architects on staff who try to tell chip vendors what to do. It’s also why companies like Google and Facebook want to determine hardware requirements and even demand that semiconductor vendors meet their requirements, or else.

Could any company become a chip company?
Probably not.

The Apple Ax processors are a special case where they made a “bet-the-company” decision to target mobile phones with a unique, more integrated device, demand a very high price, and produce it in huge volumes. The decided they needed a custom processor to do this, and hired and acquired top designers to do it. Apple’s decision to continue to make its own phone processors will probably be revisited if and when their margins or volumes decline. (A decline in margin and volume would be the result of Apple failing to differentiate itself sufficiently from other phone ecosystems and phone devices, such as Google Android.)

So if the high margins and volumes are not there, then it’s hard to justify creating one’s own chips.

However, it is feasible for service, end-device, or “systems” companies to hire top chip designers and architects to provide a tighter, more intelligent and more demanding link with their silicon providers. This is the only way these companies think they can create a user experience that is different and better than the competition. And it’s also the only way they can control their destiny and ensure their software runs optimally on an end device.

As this happens, traditional semiconductor vendors will have less and less control over their roadmaps and design decision.

Add it all up, and the software developers are now calling the shots in chip design.


—Kurt Shuler is vice president of marketing at Arteris.

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