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TSMC's IP moves stir up concern among providers

Posted: 25 Apr 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:TSMC semiconductor IP? IP vendors? TSMC foundry services?

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd (TSMC) is quietly but aggressively laboring to broaden its portfolios of internally developed semiconductor intellectual property and 'proven' third-party IP. That has some observers asking whether the company is migrating to a more ASIC-like business modeland whether third-party IP vendors should be concerned about the foundry's competitive ambitions.

Executives at TSMC assert that the goal of the IP moves is to advance the company's pure-play foundry business. This week, the company will announce the addition of Impinj Inc. to its Active Accuracy Assurance program, formerly called IP-9000, which verifies third-party IP as 'silicon proven' in the foundry provider's own fabs. The program may be designed to boost customer confidence that a verified piece of IP is free of the quality and manufacturing problems that have plagued some cores in system-on-chip designs.

At the same time, TSMC is beefing up its in-house IP activities. With little or no fanfare, it has expanded its hard-IP portfolio and libraries in ADCs and DACs, memory compilers, PLLs, standard cells and specialty I/O.

"I'm very worried about the channel conflicts between TSMC's IP and the third-party IP houses in the marketplace," lamented one semiconductor IP vendor, who also expressed envy of the foundry's vast resources.

Over the past five years, TSMC has spent $100 million on R&D for its own design blocks and IP, president and CEO Rick Tsai said at the company's recent conference in San Jose, U.S.

The vast majority of IP houses are small operations that, combined, could not approach that total, observers said.

Hidden agenda
TSMC insists the aim of its internal IP efforts is to help its customers bring their chip products to market more rapidly. But some observers suggested another motive, noting that the foundry provider is focusing on proprietary physical-level 'hard' IP, which cannot be ported to competitive foundries. Thus, customers of TSMC's IP could be locked into its fabs.

In contrast, third-party IP houses offer soft as well as hard IP cores.

In defense of the company, TSMC's proprietary IP efforts differentiate its foundry business and potentially enhance the value proposition for customers, said Bill Ong, an analyst with American Technology Research Corp.

Foundries have offered third-party IP for years as a means to attract customers, acknowledged Steve Szirom, an IP expert and founder of consulting firm InsideChips, which tracks semiconductor startups. But TSMC's efforts put it on a "collision course with the IP vendors," Szirom said.

TSMC's efforts are "a worrisome sign for vendors like Virage and [ARM] Artisan," said Jack Browne, VP of marketing for IP processor provider MIPS Technologies Inc.

Browne noted TSMC has the resources to expand its efforts from physical-level IP to high-end products, such as processors. But he thinks it is unlikely that TSMC will move into processors that would compete with those from ARM or MIPS.

A spokesman for ARM Holdings plc declined to comment.

For Virage Logic Corp., TSMC is both a partner and a competitor. Virage develops IP for TSMC's leading-edge processes. It also distributes TSMC's internally developed IP to customers.

"It's all in the spirit of competitive cooperation," said Ken Potts, VP of product marketing for Virage. "We work very closely with them. We also compete with them; we go toe to toe. But when we compete, we have a more premium solution."

Model shift
TSMC's moves have some wondering whether the company is shifting from the pure-play foundry business model toward a more ASIC-like model.

Chuck Byers, worldwide brand manager at TSMC, insisted the company is not changing its business strategy. The focus remains pure-play foundry service, he said. Asked if TSMC wants to take over the IP business, Byers said: "Hell, no. We don't want to put [the third-party IP providers] out of business." Rather, he said, TSMC's own IP lines are "enabling building blocks" to get "designs into production."

Indeed, IP has become an increasingly critical piece of the IC design puzzle. Global revenue associated with semiconductor IP hit $1.8 billion in 2006, a 25 percent increase from 2005's $1.4 billion, according to Gartner Inc. By 2010, Gartner forecasts the worldwide semiconductor IP market will exceed $2.7 billion.

But the IP industry has taken a beating over quality and manufacturing problems. Some IP products work on paper but not necessarily in the fab, said Larry Morrell, VP of IP products at Impinj.

Some 25 IP vendors are certified under TSMC's Active Accuracy Assurance program. New member Impinj is said to be the first nonvolatile, multiple-time-programmable IP vendor in TSMC's program. Its 0.18?m Aeon IP has been validated under AAA.

- Mark Lapedus
EE Times




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