Xilinx Inc. President and CEO Moshe Gavrielov uses the term "programmable imperative" to describe what he sees as the alignment of market and technology forces creating a tipping point whereby FPGAs are displacing ASICs for many applications.
It's essentially an old argument with a fancy new name. Programmable logic suppliers have been arguing since the invention of FPGAs that the flexibility of the devices and lower associated non-recurring engineering costs make them a superior choice to ASICs in many applications. The counterargument goes that ASICs offer performance, size and manufacturing cost savings that can't be touched by FPGAs.
As Sony Corp.'s Tsugio Makimoto postulated way back in 1991, these market and technology forces tend to swing back and forth; Makimoto's Wave describes 10-year cycles during which electronic products migrate from standard parts to custom devices, then shift back in the other direction. Still, recent trends such as the declining number of ASIC starts seem to support Gavrielov's contention that a true tipping point in favor of programmability is finally upon us.
But Jack Harding, chairman, president and CEO of ASIC design and services provider eSilicon Corp. has a simple question for those declaring victory for FPGAs: Where is the money?
"If FPGAs are becoming pervasive, why has the FPGA market not grown in eight years?" Harding asked during a recent interview at eSilicon's Sunnyvale, Calif. headquarters.
Harding says the size of the programmable logic market has remained essentially stuck at around $4 billion since the early part of this decade. While FPGA vendors are certainly shipping many more transistors than they did in 2001, they haven't been able to translate that into revenue gains. Harding says the market has essentially assigned a value of about $4 billion per year to FPGAs in exchange for their flexibility and ease of use.
Meanwhile, Harding says, the ASIC market continues to grow and is worth between $22 billion and $24 billion per year.
"If I was in a market that hadn't grown in 10 years, I wouldn't argue that I was cannibalizing a much bigger market," Harding said.
Bryan Lewis, vice president and chief analyst for semiconductors at Gartner Inc. puts a different spin on programmable logic revenue growth in recent years. According to Lewis, the PLD/FPGA market was worth about $4 billion in 2000 and looks to be worth about $4 billion in 2010. But the market has actually been growing fairly steadily since 2002, when revenue dipped below $2.5 billion, Lewis noted. The PLD/FPGA market has had to re-trench and broaden its application exposure after the communication and dotcom bust of 2000, he said.
"The new breed of FPGAs are in a strong position to add incremental growth going forward as they push leading edge manufacturing with new innovative architectures," Lewis added.
|Total FPGA/PLD revenue by year.|