The Linley Mobile Conference opened today with a nice keynote overview of the mobile market evolution. In the media I see a lot of doom and gloom articles about smartphones and wearables but if you look at it closely you will see a natural growth curve evolving.
The mobile semiconductor market is evolving as vendors split their focus between the massive smartphone market and the rapidly growing market for wearables such as fitness bands and smartwatches. This presentation will discuss the end products that are driving new demand and the chip-level products that support them. Linley will also discuss technology trends in these mobile devices and provide market data including 2015 market share and updated forecasts.
One of the most interesting observations Linley made was on the mobile application processor consolidation driven by systems companies. Apple started it all with their A4 SoC which used the ARM Cortex-A8 core and Imagination Technologies PowerVR GPU. In the beginning, standard IP was used for the majority of SoCs but now custom IP is prevalent. For example, Apple licenses the ARM architecture and creates their own custom cores. Apple does not however design a GPU or modem yet, but it is coming, absolutely.
Side note: In 2013 Apple turned the SoC market upside down with the first 64-bit SoC based on the TSMC 20nm platform. This is well documented in our book “Mobile Unleashed” but the long story made short, Qualcomm first belittled Apple’s 64-bit masterpiece as a “marketing ploy” only to follow with a knee jerk reaction that would send their stock and employee count tumbling. QCOM has since recovered with their latest 14nm SnapDragon 820/821 offering which is best in class, for now.
Samsung and Huawei are also doing their own custom SoCs which means the top three smartphone vendors do not have to buy merchant SoCs from the likes of Qualcomm and MediaTek. Xiaomi is the number four smartphone vendor and I was told that they also licensed the ARM architecture and may stop using QCOM and MKT SoCs in the near future. If you add up the smartphone market share of Samsung, Apple, Huawei, and Xiaomi you will get a number greater than 90% which is one reason why Intel, Marvell, and others are getting out of the merchant SoC business.
Wearables mostly use standard processors with the exception of the Apple watch which uses recycled 28nm iPhone5 technology. Most Android watches use QCOM SnapDragons, the Fitbit uses STMicro MCUs, and the Xaomi Mi Band uses a Cypress part.
Given that the smart watch dominates the wearables market and cost is critical, look for more custom silicon from systems companies (Apple, Samsung, Xioami, etc…) in the next generation of smart watches and even fitness bands. I would also be willing to bet that FD-SOI will be used for wearables in the not so distant future given the FinFET-like performance and power efficiency with a much lower cost . FD-SOI today also has superior RF/Analog capabilities over FinFETs, especially if you are looking at the GF 22FDX process (read more about 22FDX HERE).