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Imagination Has More Stuff Than You…Imagine

Imagination Has More Stuff Than You…Imagine
by Paul McLellan on 08-29-2013 at 1:04 pm

 Imagination seems to be well known for a couple of things. Firstly, everyone knows that it is the graphics processor used in the iPhone and the iPad and lots of other phones. And they know that Imagination acquired MIPS at the start of this year.

But what people don’t seem to really appreciate is just what a huge portfolio of IP the company actually has and how successful they are: they actually ship over 3 million products per day, which works out at about 40 every second.

Imagination has processors in 4 main areas:

  • Multimedia: not just GPUs, but a new ray-tracing engine, video and vision processors. Remember about 75% of the internet bandwidth is video, and everything is going towards 4K pixels.
  • Communications: they call these RPU (for radio-processing unit) for connectivity, along with a lot of associated software for voice over IP etc
  • Processors: the MIPS product line, extended, along with operating systems, software stacks, debuggers and the like
  • Cloud: cloud back end processing to easily configure low-powered devices to offload complex processing. Enabling technology for the Internet of Things (IoT).

Yesterday, Imagination had the first annual executive/press event at the Stanford faculty club. Stanford university is especially appropriate since the MIPS architecture originated there.

 John Hennessy, the original creator of the MIPS architecture along with his colleagues, gave a little of the early history. He tried to get existing computer companies interested in the MIPS architecture, perhaps the purest example of RISC architecture. But business conditions were not favorable. For example, IBM canceled their RISC processor, the 801 (as an aside, imagine how different the semiconductor industry might look if IBM had put that processor into the original PC instead of an Intel 8088). Gordon Bell told John that if he wanted to commercialize the processor then he’d have to found his own company. So, in 1988, he founded MIPS Computer Systems.

Silicon Graphics made extensive use of it and when MIPS was struggling they acquired it. Eventually in 1998 SGI spun MIPS back out again (now as MIPS Technologies) and then at the end of last year Imagination acquired them for $100M.

One problem MIPS had been having was uncertainty about its future. It is hard to get a semiconductor company to commit to a long-term use of your processor when it is unclear if the company is going to survive forever. It is funny say so today, but even ARM had that problem in the early days once the Newton was not a success and so their future was also uncertain. Now with Imagination, MIPS is doing well in the markets where it has traditionally been strong (communications, set-top-box and DVR etc). There are also green field opportunities like wearable computing. Imagination executives have a goal of 25% of the design wins in 5 years.

Of course they are the first to admit that the most difficult area is mobile, which is ARM’s stronghold. Imagination seems to think that the market wants a choice, as opposed to a monopoly. I’m not so sure myself. Firstly, there are some natural reasons for wanting to use a common architecture rather than lots of different ones in a given market. But also, while everyone might want more choices in principle, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to act on that desire and license non-ARM core for a mobile device just to level the playing field for the good of the industry. Also, although Intel are not in the processor licensing business, ARM (and MIPS too, of course) are very aware of its push to leverage its process technology into a strong position in mobile. But the bottom line is that MIPS is in a much stronger position as part of Imagination than it was on its own.

Another thing I hadn’t realized is that Imagination had been working on their own internal general purpose CPU development before they acquired MIPS. In fact they had almost as many processor engineers working on it as MIPS had themselves. These engineers have now all been redirected to the MIPS line with the Warrior line the first MIPS processors since the acquisition coming later this year.

Details of the entire Imagination/MIPS product line is here.

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