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Android tablet wars putting the pressure on Rockchip

Posted: 27 Sep 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:28nm process technology? Cortex-A8? iPads? MT6577? Mali-400 GPU?

Rockchip is going all in, betting everything on Globalfoundries' 28nm process technology for its upcoming apps processor. The company will also face an added task of hanging on to customers as the tablet wars heat up.

Nine months ago, Fuzhou Rockchip Electronics, an apps processor developer for tablets, looked to be in a great position. The company introduced itself at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas as China's next rock star. "The sky is the limit," Rockchip's proclaimed in a press release.

While the sky hasn't exactly fallen on Rockchip since then, the Android-based media tablet market has gotten far more competitive. By volume, the Android tablet sector has grown to an estimated 80 million units, outpacing the 75 million iPads sold by Apple thus far, according to estimates by Rockchip vice president Feng Chen. But an equal explosion has occurred among suppliers of apps processors for Android-based tablets, with everyone chasing the same market.

Allwinner changes the landscape

Rockchip faces stiff competition from multinational chip companies like Samsung Electronics and Taiwanese behemoth MediaTek. Meanwhile, a host of Chinese chip suppliers are coming after Rockchip, undercutting it on price, features and integration plans.

At the beginning of 2012, the target price of a 7-inch capacitive screen media tablet featuring Cortex-A8 was $99. That price has since dropped to around $65, due largely to Allwinner, a red-hot Chinese fabless company that has flooded the tablet market with its own turnkey system. Speaking of the trend, one industry observer in Shenzhen noted, "It's a bad news for the whole industry."

Rockchip's situation vividly illustrates the challenges most Chinese fabless chip companies now face.

During a recent interview with EE Times here, Rockchip's Chen (right) said, "This is a new world war we're fighting." Gazing at the breakfast table, Chen added, "It's tough. But at least I'll have a story to tell my grandchild someday."

Indeed, nearly every apps processor vendor here is in a rough spot because "the time-to-market requirement has gotten much shorter," he noted. "Worse, catching the market rhythm or cycleat the right time C has become much harder."

Rockchip has invested in licensing or purchasing IP cores. In an effort to amortise its investment, the company has been developing as many as six chips a year using those IP cores. "Previously, we may have developed one chip for Tier-One customer," said Chen.

"But now, as end-product cycles get shorter, we do everything from designing a chip to developing a board and software that goes around the hardwareliterally within a couple of months," he explained. In March, for example, Rockchip started to design its RK3066, a dual-core Cortex A9 chip with a quad-core Mali-400 GPU. By April, it hustled to showcase sample tablets based on the chip at the Hong Kong Electronics Fair. By May, the company began shipping the new apps processor to its customers.

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