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Marvell bets big on connected devices

Posted: 16 Apr 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:devices connected? CPU processors? PC netbook?

Leveraging its homegrown ARM-based Sheeva CPU processors, Marvell Technology Group's co-founder and CEO has a clear vision: Enabling the next billion users of connected devices.

In today's electronics industry, Marvell is not alone in its quest. Nor is its idea necessarily new.

Both Nvidia and Freescale Semiconductor, for example, are betting big on netbooks that run Linux on an ARM processor. They hope to stir up competition forif not an endthe current Windows-Intel dominance of the notebook PC market.

In the lead up to Taiwan's Computex show in June, Nvidia, with its Tegra SoC (based on ARM11), and Freescale, with its i.MX51 CPU (ARM Cortex-A8), are racing to pick up design wins from bigger computer OEMs and ODMs.

Meanwhile, TI, which is pushing its ARM-based OMAP processors, is counting on cellphone and consumer electronics OEMs familiar with ARM to become a disruptive force in the notebook PC market.

Marvell, on the other hand, scoffs at netbooks. The company has set its sights on the non-PC, non-netbook markets.

Marvell CEO Sehat Sutardja said during a recent interview with EE Times: "A lot of people tell us, 'Oh, you are doing ARM because you want to replace PCs.' But they are wrong."

High-tech companies tend to chase existing markets like PCs, said Sutardja. "But why should we when the next billion [users] is much bigger than the PC market?"

The Marvell CEO stressed: "PCs will be always PCs," quickly adding: "You don't want to throw away the PC's legacy overnight." But next-generation Internet devices "shouldn't pretend to be a PC."

Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, agreed. Companies developing "those devices that look, smell and act like a PC" will be "fighting an uphill battle against Intel and Microsoft," he said.

Marvell's mission is to insinuate its Sheeva CPU into a number of connected consumer devices. The company's strategy includes Sheevas designed into digital photo frames, used to upgrade feature phones into smart phones and powering STBs, Blu-ray recorders and other connected devices that "allow consumers to absorb content," according to Sutardja.

"The next billion people will use new information displays and 'connected' consumer devices in places they've never imagined before," Sutardja predicted. "In kitchens, bathrooms and laundry rooms, for example, where you used to think it's silly to use your PC."

Brewing optimism
Many share Sutardja's optimism. In-Stat's McGregor said, "Marvell's strategy represents the lowest path of resistance and highest probability of success for their technology and market position."

But industry observers aren't necessarily sold on Sutardja's prediction that "the same engine" will be used in a race to the next billion devices.

Sutardja claimed, "Those days are over when OEMs chose different processor cores for different consumer products." ARM-based Sheeva processors, loaded with interfaces, audio, graphics, Ethernet, 3G and Wi-Fi, for example, will become an alternative to a variety of SoCs that dominate and fragment today's consumer devices, he said. "Not using the same engine isn't making [an end system] any cheaper."

A healthy dose of skepticism is warranted, however.

First, the consumer market is notoriously broad and fragmented. Second, Marvell's consumer device gambit is still largely unproven.

While acknowledging that Marvell's new Sheeva products "can compete in STB, Blu-ray and picture frames," Linley Gwennap, president of market researcher Linley Group, said: "These markets are currently dominated by MIPS and PowerPC processors."

McGregor called Sutardja's "same-engine" theory "not practical" and "not likely anytime soon." That's because different devices have different performance, power, form factor, thermal and other design constraints. "It would be nice to have one processor that could do it all, but it is just not practical, and will likely not be practical for some time," he said.

McGregor added: "Using different processors can aid the OEMs in adding value by adding differentiation to their products. Just look at how many ARM cores and processors are available. STMicroelectronics and TI have even announced multicore processors based on the Cortex-A9 architecture."

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