Desperation Drives Inspiration

Desperation Drives Inspiration
by Daniel Nenni on 08-10-2018 at 7:00 am

22158-ti-dsp-wally-rhines.jpgThis is the tenth in the series of “20 Questions with Wally Rhines”

1978 was a bad year for TI. In April, Intel announced the 8086 followed by disclosures of 16-bit microprocessors from Motorola, the 68000, and Zilog, the Z8000. TI had tried to leapfrog the microprocessor business by introducing the TMS 9900 16-bit microprocessor in 1976. But the TMS 9900 had only 16 bits of logical address space and the industry needed a 16-bit microprocessor for address space rather than performance. In addition, TI had no peripheral chips for the TMS 9900 and tried to overcome that weakness with an 8-bit bus version of the 9900 called the 9980 (an approach that Intel also followed with the Intel 8088) but TI found that any performance advantages of a 16-bit microprocessor were sacrificed with the 8-bit approach ( Intel overcame that weakness by winning the design socket for the IBM PC with the 8088 despite the performance weakness.

TI also tried to develop a 16-bit TMS 9940 microcontroller with a whole new set of problems resulting in resignation or termination of much of the microprocessor team. I became manager of the TI microprocessor activity more because nobody wanted the job than through personal merit. But I had a different motivation. At the time, I was engineering manager of TI’s Consumer Products Group, heading the design of calculator chips, Speak ‘n Spell speech processors and other miscellaneous devices. That job was located in Lubbock, Texas, which was not my idea of a great location for a 31 year old single male. So Houston, which had some drawbacks, scored far above Lubbock in my plan. Most of my time in Houston was initially filled by exit interviews with all the people who were bailing out of the sinking ship. Fortunately, there were some resilient, smart people like Kevin McDonough, John Hughes, Jeff Bellay and Jerry Rogers (who later founded Cyrix and married Jodi Shelton, Founder and CEO of GSA). John Hughes convened a day-long meeting to debate what would be important after host microprocessors since we had obviously lost that race.

The answer: Special purpose microprocessors. We chose three and then added a fourth one later, and named them the TMS 320, 340, 360 and 380. The TMS 320 was a communications processor, the 340 graphics, the 360 mass storage. Later the TMS 380 was designed for the IBM Token Ring LAN. The first job was to decide what a communications processor, or Signal Processing Microcomputer, as we called it, would be. Ed Caudel spent the next six months analyzing that question and concluded that the distinguishing characteristic was a single-cycle multiply/accumulate instruction (although we required two cycles in the first generation TMS 32010 but made it to one cycle with the 32020). John commissioned Kevin and others from systems groups around the company to write applications using alternative instruction sets. Early on, we found we needed a DSP expert and, fortuitously, our group in Bedford, England had interviewed one named Surendar Magar. Tony Leigh has documented most of the history very accurately. Surrendar quickly determined that the single cycle multiply/accumulate would have to be done in hardware, not software as Ed had hoped. (

TI was not the first company to develop a single chip digital signal processor. In fact, it was the fifth. Intel announced one while we were developing the TMS 320 but it incorporated an on-chip 8-bit A/D and D/A making it unusable for most applications. Chi-Foon Chan, Co-CEO of Synopsys, who was working at Intel on the first DSPs, tells me that the poor customer reception of the 2920 caused Intel to kill the enhanced version of the chip, which he was working on, thus keeping the door open for TI.

Despite lots of delays, the TMS 320 was announced at the February 1982 ISSCC with rave revues from people like Ben Rosen, the leading semiconductor analyst. We knew we had a winner but the world didn’t understand digital signal processing. We had to publish books, develop algorithm libraries and promote the technology. Financial analysts paid no attention and neither did our senior management so I found myself giving largely unappreciated presentations at financial and technical meetings as well as in the TI Board room.

We needed some high volume applications and our largest customer was Lear Sigler who was making analog repeaters for under water cables. Hardly a high volume application. We needed consumer products companies in Asia. But our Japanese organization was totally uninterested. Their customers almost always wanted custom chip designs. And then a unique event changed the tide. A group in Canada wrote an application note on how to design a FAX MODEM using a TMS 32010. A group in Australia read the article and built a prototype and sold the design to a Japanese company, Murata.

A Murata engineering manager called the TI Japan office and asked for a quote on the TMS 32010. The TI Product Marketing Engineer had never heard of the TMS 320 but he looked it up in the price book and quoted a $35 price. We had never sold one north of $10 so this was a unique response. The Murata engineer said, “Good. I’ll take 20,000 parts.” From then on, we had no resistance from the TI Japan organization and, in fact, they then designed a derivative named the TMS 320C25 which became one of the highest volume members of the family.

The most strategic discontinuity came later. After years of struggle, we convinced Ericsson to design a TMS 320 into a cell phone. A subsequent need for a cost reduced version of the phone became apparent. We had to combine two ASICs, a TMS 320 DSP and a static RAM into a single chip. “How hard can this be?”, I said. All the parts are already verified. I didn’t understand the laws of verification that drive the need to verify internal state, increasing the amount of verification as the square of the number of gates when you combine chips. I willingly committed to Lars Ramquist, the CEO of Ericsson, that we would do the design quickly. A crash effort resulted and, in parallel, Gilles Delfassy took on a similar task for Nokia.

Fortunately, the chips worked and TI grew the wireless baseband MODEM business to something approaching $4 billion per year. The subsequent step was even more critical. To do similar low cost designs for all the other producers of cell phones (and other applications like hard disc drive controllers), we needed to combine our ASIC library with our embedded DSP. Everyone told me that this would be suicide. ASIC’s were sold as cents per gate while DSP’s had high gross margins. But Krishna Balasubramanian (known as Bala) and I decided to combine the ASIC and microprocessor business into one group under Rich Templeton. A good decision. Success followed, DSP-based technology became nearly half of TI’s revenue and Rich eventually became Chairman and CEO. In between, Tom Engibous leveraged the technology to create a wide variety of businesses while building TI’s position in analog. In 2017, TI became the most profitable of the major semiconductor companies in the world at 41% operating profit.

The 20 Questions with Wally Rhines Series

One Reply to “Desperation Drives Inspiration”

You must register or log in to view/post comments.