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The other computer inside

Posted: 07 Jul 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:pc peripheral chip? computer motherboard?

At one point in its history, Cirrus Logic made so many PC peripheral chips that its glossy annual report referred to itself as "The Other Computer Inside". At its height, Cirrus was taking close to $1 billion in revenues from the PC market. The "Other Computer" report featured intimate close ups of computer motherboards (like Planet Analog magazine covers), highlighting the many PC areas where the company would compete: disk drive controllers, graphics chips, telephone modems and (of course) audio codecs.

The interest in dominating the PC peripheral space was the special vision of then CEO Mike Hackworth, a former marketing VP (and my mentor, if the truth be known) at Signetics. I remember a meeting, 25 years ago, in which Hackworth confronted Delco/GM engineers about their interest in Compact Audio Disc players, which were then enormous consoles that sold for $1,500 each. "When are you going to start putting these into cars?" he asked. It took 20 years for CD players to become standard equipment in automotive consoles, but Hackworth - a visionary - clearly saw the possibility.

Cirrus got into the modem (and ADSL) business almost as an afterthought, but the company was arguably first to market with a digital read channel for disk drives. And its 7543 and 7555 graphics controllers were considered so advanced, that many after-market graphics card makers promoted the Cirrus Logic name. Competing then with the likes of Trident and S3, Cirrus used consumer commercial vehicles like "Bunting's Windows" (a United Airlines feature) to promote its graphics chips.

I was frequently interviewed at that time by public relations agencies and market research firms on my impressions of Cirrus. "Watching Cirrus is like being 'ringside' at a prize fight," I said repeatedly. "You're obviously watching a champ, but this market changes so fast-and-furious, that you'll never know when they're going to take a punch and go down."

Sure enough, they did: They missed a generation in graphics controllers, and then glamour of the PC market was over.

When Dave French came in as CEO, and moved the company headquarters from Milpitas to the Crystal Semiconductor plant in Austin, Texas, he sold off the remnants of the modem and graphics businesses. "Areas where the company could no longer compete effectively," he told Dave Lammers and me in an EE Times interview. Disk drive SoCs were then 30 percent of the company's business, but French saw that diminishing in importance. He had actually done such impressive job of downsizing the company that I privately wondered if he was consciously creating a take-over target.

Once it gave up on being everyone's PC peripheral, Cirrus appeared to concentrate on multimedia, particularly video and audio. It bought Stream Machine Co., a Milpitas developer of video-encoding technology, for $110 million to give it a foothold among MPEG video decoders. A Cirrus marketing VP, Terry Leeder (a co-worker of mine at Signetics, in fact, maybe the guy who took my job when I left) was here in San Francisco and again at CES two years ago demonstrating a chip set that he felt would pave the way for low-cost home DVD recorders - especially the kind designed and manufactured in China. I knew something was afoot when Leeder left the company before actually delivering the guest editorial I solicited. Barely one year later, LSI Logic was winning eeProductCenter accolades for the single-chip DVD player/recorder it was showing at CES. Philips and STMIcroelectronics were not too far behind. Cirrus hardly made a showing.

It shouldn't be surprising then to hear last week that Cirrus had sold off its video component business. "By divesting the video product line, Cirrus Logic is focusing on its core analog, mixed-signal and embedded integrated circuit (IC) product lines for audio and industrial markets," said the announcement, reminiscent of one made by Intersil when it sold off the WLAN business it had in fact helped pioneer.

In audio codecs, using the data converter technology it had inherited from Crystal Semiconductor, Cirrus may be on a much stronger footing. Coupling special-purpose 24-bit DSPs with audio D/A converters, for example, helped the company steal slots from the Motorola 56300 in Japanese-brand A/V receivers. Those devices would provide concert hall effects and surround-sound environments, even Dolby Digital decoding.

The company had demonstrated its DSP expertise in an automotive sound platform at CES one year. (It should not be surprising, since CEO French had formerly steered Analog Devices' DSP group.) The platform demonstrated at CES that year used DSP to tune and equalize the interiors of automobiles. Rather than installing one multimedia environment in a Cadillac and different one for a Chevy, a General Motors (as a speculative example) could install one platform and equalize it for different road environments and perceived quality levels.

Cirrus' DSP strategy seemed sensible to me (why pay the freight for a 24bit general-purpose DSP?), until Analog Devices started winning A/V receiver slots with its own Sharc floating point processor (effectively a 32bit device) - which was aggressively-priced against both the Motorola and Cirrus devices. And two years after its automotive system demos at CES, some Cirrus marketers reported that automotive audio was indeed a difficult market to penetrate (though automotive electronics remains a separate category on the company's web site).

With Cirrus-trained talent showing up at Silicon Laboratories and other Austin design centers, it's hard to tell how well to company is positioned for an attack on the audio codec market. Competitors in the audio space like Wolfson Microelectronics (Edinburgh, Scotland) and Austin-based SigmaTel have already carved up interesting chunks of the handheld MP3 player market, while Texas Instruments' Burr-Brown products group (Tucson, AZ) and AKM Semiconductor (a former Crystal licensee, in fact) promise fierce competition in the professional audio recording market. And who knows how many little Asian companies are out there waiting to compete on price if not on quality. A slimmed down Cirrus (its fiscal 2005 revenues - basically flat for some time now - were about $195 million) will have an interesting job positing its products in the months and years to come.

To use a current analogy - so fresh for those of us following the Tour de France cycling marathon - the pacers need every second to stay bent over and cranking away at the pedals. Even if it hurts. (Especially if it hurts.) The very instant the ostensible leader of the tour sits upright in his saddle, he's swallowed by the pack.

- Stephan Ohr


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