LONDON – The report that processor and related IP licensor MIPS Technologies Inc. is seeking a buyer, if true and taken through to a final conclusion, would be a case of a one-time industry leader looking like a dinosaur after the meteor struck. And the meteor that struck the planet is the rise of mobile computing.
As with ST-Ericsson, which was kind of a self-assembly dinosaur (see Why ST should sell ST-Ericsson to China) the fast changing nature of the market to which a wealth of technology can be applied is causing fall-out for some but allowing some big corporate animals (Apple) and locations (China) to thrive.
In the case of MIPS it seems to me more likely that one or more of the U.S. licensees rather than a Chinese licensee would make a bid. The reason is that culturally the licensing of intellectual property is still a work in progress in China and as such would probably feel like a less secure business than one based on real product delivery.
Indeed it is thought that some now-legitimate Chinese licensees of MIPS architectures started out as pirates. Although they, and the Chinese government through its Loongson-based supercomputing projects, may have an interest in where the ownership of MIPS technology eventually resides they would not yet seem to be ready to turn all the way from poacher to gamekeeper. But if they should it might prompt a bidding war with the U.S. for strategic control.
Broadcom, Cavium and Cisco all make extensive use of MIPS licenses and one or all of them might consider it unsatisfactory to have their processor roadmap in someone else's control.
And it should not be forgetten that this would not be the first time that MIPS has been acquired. The company was founded in 1984 as MIPS Computer Systems Inc. and started out by selling Unix workstations based on its own designs of RISC microprocessor. It became a seller of RISC chips to workstation builders.
The architecture became so important to graphics workstation vendor Silicon Graphics Inc. (Sunnyvale, Calif.) that the company acquired MIPS in 1992 to make sure a particular 64-bit design was not abandoned. It was during a subsequent SGI downsizing that MIPS re-entered the market as a stand-alone licensor of processor designs.
So is a Cisco or a Broadcom going to save MIPS? Possibly. Or maybe a consortium of licensors can put a syndicate together to hold the ownership of the intellectual property.
But 20 years on from SGI the situation is different. There is a viable alternative to MIPS that is already striving to bring up networking and higher performance architectures that goes by the name of ARM.
Related links and articles:
Report: MIPS up for sale
Why ST should sell ST-Ericsson to China
EE Times launches China fabless IC report
Chinese firm offers sub-$100 Android 4.0 tablet
Chinese developer licenses MIPS32 and MIPS64
China link helps MIPS go mobile