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Analysis: Why Atom-based SoCs don't fly

Posted: 02 Mar 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Atom SoC? x86? processor? intellectual property?

You would think an x86 core would be a hot item for a SoC design but it seems that no one is biting on Intel Corp.'s offer last March to sell rights to an Atom core for SoCs made at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd.

Here are some armchair speculations. Most of it comes down to one thing!this new SoC model might have some inside Intel a little scared.

High royalties
Intel did not make terms of its Atom SoC business publically available when it launched the deal. It's a new business model for Intel and maybe the processor giant is being a little too greedy!aka fearful!about releasing the crown jewels of its processor designs.

Nasty business terms
Atom royalties could be in line. After all, the prices ARM charges are probably widely known, so Intel should have a model on which to base its prices.

But I would not be surprised if Intel has a real fear about losing control of its intellectual property. Unlike ARM, Intel has spent years and millions litigating against rivals such as AMD, Cyrix and others who cloned the x86. The processor giant can't afford to let China Inc. get hold of any proprietary details about its designs.

Thus I suspect there could be some onerous business or legal handcuffs that come with being an Atom licensee. If so, Intel could be scaring off customers.

Not providing adequate visibility
Again, fear of having one of its novel x86 designs cloned by rivals may have motivated Intel to keep a tight rein on how much technical detail it discloses about the core. SoC designers won't want to trust their chip design to a core that isn't well documented!especially not when there are plenty of alternative cores from ARM, MIPS and others that provide plenty of technical details about their internal plumbing.

Lacking on details
Intel has disclosed no details about the Atom core it is making available through TSMC. Maybe it is some sort of step-child of the Atom cores Intel itself markets. The theory that Intel fears making its best IP openly available comes into play here, too.

The TSMC core could suck too much power. Even Intel's Atom cores are power hogs compared to ARM cores in the same general neighborhood of performance, demanding a watt or two where ARM might use a couple hundred milliwatts.

There could also be performance problems. Intel is gifted at cranking out processor designs when it owns the process technology they are made in. It is less skilled in designing for someone else's standard foundry process!and it likely does not have its best design engineers on the task.

No one wants to go first
If I just got my $15 million in venture capital or corporate funding to do a new SoC design, I may not want to risk blowing the money on a brand new core just ported to a new process technology, provided by a large and paranoid company for whom the IP business is a new experiment.

No, I think I'd prefer a proven core and process and a core provider who has been in the game awhile.

Intel doesn't know how to sell processor cores
Perhaps the PC processor giant just doesn't know how to sell this stuff? The simple fix would be to hire a handful of enterprising ARM sales and application engineers.

Whatever the problems really are, I suspect they can be solved!if Intel really wants to be in this business. The x86 has a long history in PC and embedded markets. There are bazillions of apps, tools and peripherals for it.

Such a rich eco-system should attract a lively SoC business, if Intel has the will to do what it needs to do to become a solid silicon IP provider. Time will tell if that's really in Intel's soul, or the company just can't get beyond its PC processor DNA.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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