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Low Cost Smartphones: How Do They Do It For $50?

Low Cost Smartphones: How Do They Do It For $50?
by Paul McLellan on 07-19-2013 at 12:09 pm

 The future growth in smartphones is largely going to be at the low end of the market as Eric wrote about here a couple of weeks ago. A lot of that growth is targeted at China. Sitting in the US it is easy to underestimate the size of the Chinese market. China Mobile (the market leader) is just one company but has more than twice the number of subscribers as the entire US market. And while middle-class Chinese in Shanghai and Beijing and Guangzhou may have iPhones, the price point is too high for most Chinese. Plus phones are not subsidized by the carriers in China (or most of the world actually) so they pay the full $600 or whatever an unsubsidized iPhone costs. The growth is in phones with $50 BOMs with open source operating systems like Android or Firefox or Tizen.

Of course the high end will continue to grow, but most people in the rich parts of the world who want a smartphone already have one, and so it is largely a replacement market. But a large number of sub-$100 smartphones are launching this year in China, India, SE Asia, South America and Africa. Many, if not most, of the companies designing these phones are Chinese, using silicon from Qualcomm, Samsung and, especially, Taiwan-based Mediatek. But many new entrants are going even lower-cost, taping out application processors on process nodes like 45nm that are no longer leading edge and so lower cost. These chips may not have as much capability, especially smaller screens and less powerful graphics, as the phones we all have in our pockets (or purses) but if you are a farmer in western China your avian interests are more likely exploring the market cost for your chickens than playing Angry Birds.

But how does a company without a lot of deep silicon skills create such an SoC?

They buy the hard stuff. Building an SoC is nowhere near as simply as building a printed circuit board (PCB) was twenty years ago but the methodology is much the same. Buy all the components, and build the fabric that ties them all together. Or perhaps buy that fabric too. Pretty much anything anyone needs is available from specialist silicon IP suppliers such as Arasan, who don’t just supply the actual netlists and analog cell, but also the verification IP, the device drivers and software stack, and FPGA-based implementations for testing purposes. What Bill Davidow called, in his classic book on marketing high-technogy called…er, Marketing High Technology…the “whole product.” Something the late adopters, the non-Qualcomms of the world, can use.

Application processors use a lot of standard interfaces (who in their right mind would build a non-standard interface these days?) such as JEDEC’s eMMC or the MIPI Alliance’s family such as CSI, DSI, D-PHY. These standards change all the time, and an SoC design team cannot keep up, which is another reason to leave the challenge to specialist companies that can deliver a high-quality product and amortize the high cost across many design teams.

Arasan have a new white paper on this low-cost smartphone market and the typical interfaces that such SoCs require and the importance of both standards-based IP in general and Arasan’s Total IP Solution in particular.

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