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Dialog Semi goes beyond power management

Posted: 29 Apr 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:power management? automotive? OLED? semiconductor fabless?

Bagherli: System power management will remain the company's main area of expertise.

Dialog Semiconductor plc tapped Jalal Bagherli some three years ago to turn round the Germany-headquartered power management chip group into a fabless operation with strong mixed-signal R&D. We caught up with the Dialog CEO to check on progress to date at the company he likes to refer to as Europe's fastest growing, publicly quoted semiconductor operation.

EE Times: Which sectors are performing well for Dialog in the downturn, and which ones are keeping you awake at night?
Bagherli: Well the portable mobile devices sector!which for us includes cellphones, MP3 players and smart phones!is holding up reasonably well, but we are seeing the impact of the cutbacks in the automotive business. I would say our relatively small exposure to the industrial lighting business is steady.

As for the near term, I expect the handsets business, which in general is clearly not as exuberant as it has been for the previous few years, will pick up as operators and an increasing number of users move to faster data rate HSPA technology. Luckily, we have an excellent offering here with an integrated power and audio chip device that was developed in conjunction with Ericsson Mobile Platforms now a part of ST-Ericsson, of course!that is licensed to some major tier 1 suppliers, notably, naturally, Sony Ericsson, but also Sharp, Samsung, Asus and LG as well as some interesting ODMs. Having this HSPA offering is crucial as about 80 percent of our turnover comes from the wireless sector, with the remainder in automotive and industrial.

The best that can be said for the automotive sector is that it may be bottoming out, and there are some opportunities for small motor control applications. It's tough in that sector, and the run rates are well below normal.

In the past, Dialog got perhaps rather too close to a few strategic customers, a while back Intel, and more recently Siemens/BenQ Mobiles. Who are you so close to!and thus potentially exposed to!now?
Well, we are still focused on some major customers, and some 80 percent of our revenues come from the top five, but the situation is better than in the past since we are significantly more diversified both geographically and in the end-user segments that we serve. Thus, the top five includes a couple of Tier 1 handset makers; a very big player in the portable media player sector Bosch in the automotive market; and in energy-saving industrial lighting, Austrian company Tridonic, which is a part of the huge Zumbotel group that also includes Thorn Lighting. And while we were probably too Euro-centric, that, too, is changing, with about 60 percent of sales now in Europe, 35 percent in the United States and the remainder in Asia, an area in which we expect to grow fastest in the next few years.

Do you have any plans to diversify from your core power management activities?
System power management will remain our main area of expertise, and we plan to build on that by, for instance, developing new classes of ASSP devices that will work with a variety of applications processors targeting different end user sectors. This will also offer us differentiation through the level l of functional integration we can bring to the party.

But in parallel with this, we are working on advances in low-power display controllers for passive matrix OLEDS!our so called SmartXtend technology that extends the PMOLED from the sub-display to the primary display of mobile devices!as well as drivers for MEMS and E-Ink based displays. Some of this we do on a contract basis with partners !for instance with Qualcomm MEMS Technologies for their Mirasol monochrome and now multicolor displays!while other R&D is our own bet.

The PMOLED comes into the latter category, and if the technology works out and we can get it integrated into next generation mobile phones by some tier 1 players such as, say, Nokia, we can create a company three to four times the size we are now. It is of course a bet, but we are already of a size that can afford a few of these.

What is the timescale for commercializing this technology?
Well, we are working closely with our Japanese partner TDK. Our input is the controller chip that reduces significantly the peak currents. That is a major drawback with OLEDS and our IP averages out peak currents using multiple line addressing techniques plus some sophisticated and accurate matching technology. We have already done a version in an FPGA and are now on a monolithic test chip that we expect to be sampling in Q3. Realistically, we don't expect it to be embedded in a mobile device before 1H 10.

The camera modules work at Dialog was spun out some three years ago to Digital Imaging Systems. Are there plans for similar spin outs in the near term?
Well everything we do now fits in with the strategy of a fabless semiconductor operation, but of course we are constantly on the look-out for opportunities. But I would say an acquisition is more likely at this stage that a spin-out. I won't say we are actively looking, but our antennas are sharper than perhaps six months ago, because of the external factors caused by the downturn. There are a few interesting bargains out there, both of small private startups that need cash to continue R&D and commercializing technology, and even some publicly-quoted operations. We are in the enviable position of having no debt and about $37 million in cash.

- John Walko
EE Times Europe

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