Though business is far from booming in any sector of electronics, it's not (comparatively speaking) a bad time to be in the FPGA business. As Gartner Inc. pointed out on Monday (March 30), ASIC design starts are
falling rapidly, projected to decline 22 percent in 2009.
FPGAs are the big beneficiary as firms choose them rather than pony up the growing amount of non-reoccurring engineering costs associated with designing and building ASICs.
So is it all roses for FPGA vendors? Not quite. With all of the momentum around FPGAs these daysthanks to economic factors and performance gains they are showing up in all kinds of products once considered off limitsit's easy to forget that in many spaces FPGAs still carry a certain stigma. The slower speeds. The large footprints. In some product areas, like mobile devices, FPGA is a four-letter word.
I had an interesting discussion last week with representatives from QuickLogic. The company announced Monday that it is developing new platforms tailored for Qualcomm Inc.'s Mobile Station Modem MSM7xxx-series and MSM8xxx-series mobile processors, including the Snapdragon family.
A couple of years ago QuickLogic backed away from the FPGA market, saying it would focus on ASSP-like devices called customer specific standard products (CSSPs).
Brain Faith, QuickLogic's vice president of worldwide marketing, told me that the company's programmable logic products are essentially the same technology as they were when they called them FPGAs. But the markets that QuickLogic targets (small, mobile consumer devices) wanted no part of anything called an FGPA. So they came up with a new acronym.
There are a couple of points that should be made here. As my predecessor on the Programmable Logic DesignLine, Clive "Max" Maxfield, pointed out to me, QuickLogic's devices have always been different than the traditional FPGAs offered by Xilinx and Altera because they have more hard-coded functionality and less programmable fabric.
QuickLogic's business model is also quite different than the traditional programmable logic vendors. The company's own engineers create custom devices for customers based on its CSSPs, in what Faith described as a "very high-touch engagement model."
The CSSPs incorporate what QuickLogic calls "proven system blocks," which are blocks of IP that may have been created by a third-party but are always acquired directly from QuickLogic. "In all cases we are the point of contact," Faith said. "We never refer customers to a third party."
Still, I was naively surprised by the idea that a company created a new product category just to distance itself from the baggage carried by another. But when I thought about it I realized that this kind of thing happens all the time. Gatorade doesn't sell juice, it offers a scientifically formulated blend of fluid, electrolytes and carbohydrates. Kentucky Fried Chicken isn't even Kentucky Fried Chicken anymore (frying being so undesirable and all).
But it goes to show that while FPGAs have momentum, they still carry a stigma that prevents other markets from even considering them.