, he specifically says that Intersil would face competition from MOSFET makers (though he didn't say IR or Vishay Siliconix by name). "We believe the company is experiencing increasing competition in the computing power management sector," he wrote. "In the last 12 months the MOSFET manufacturers have introduced power management controllers and are now in a position to kit the MOSFETs with the power controllers. With power levels increasing, MOSFET requirements are increasing, thus swinging the dollar content towards the MOSFET supplier. We believe Intersil faces an up-hill battle to maintain what was once a 50 percent market share in desktop core power control."
In a conversation with me, Freedman's concerns were spelled out. Among the players in the Intel power management market, many used to specifying an Intersil controller may now specify an IR controller. The hegemony among Pentium VRM suppliers is starting to shift, he suggested. Analog Devices has a stronger position among traditional Pentium market competitors like Fairchild Semiconductor and Semtech. Startups like Volterra Semiconductor are nibbling into this market, as are overseas players like RichTek in Taiwan.
"I could see Intersil running into difficulty," Freedman speculated. "Focused on integrating Xicor, Intersil may have taken its eye off the ball," he said.
Intersil's own agenda
Setting up an interview for me, Intersil's own press agent chided that president and CEO Rich Beyer would likely remind me of the great work the company was doing in amplifiers and LCD screen drivers. Sure enough, Beyer talked up the new capabilities his company was building in data converters (Xicor's hidden brain trust, AIS), RS485 line drivers, switches, muxes, and video amplifiers.
Elantec's forte, before it was acquired by Intersil, was high-speed amplifiers. Beyer himself had been part of the Elantec team before the acquisition. "Elantec was really good at video amplifiers," he reminded. He cited design wins with LCD TV makers since March, and projected "significant business in 2005." Beyer believes that consumer electronics and computing business activity will Intersil's strong suits going into the near future, and said as much in his "guidance" statements to financial analysts.
In a column title playing on the punch line of a 1950's TV quiz show - "Will the real Intersil please stand up?" - I traced the history of the company from its early days as a capacitive charge-pump maker based in Cupertino (the granddaddy of Maxim, in fact), to its amalgamation with GE Semiconductor, RCA Semiconductor and Harris Semiconductor, to the resurrection of the Intersil name, to the sale of its IEEE802.11b components business to GlobespanVirata. The company's intent, as reported by EE Times and re-stated in that column, was to concentrate on multi-market analog building blocks. The WLAN market was becoming a custom SoC market, Chris Henningsen said, demanding ever higher levels of semiconductor integration with increasingly smaller paybacks.
I had mentioned in that column that Harris/Intersil had sold off its power transistor business to Fairchild. Intersil's new competitors, MOSFET makers like IR and Vishay Siliconix, are actively touting the efficiencies gained by carefully matching pulse width modulation (PWM) controllers with compatible MOSFETs. I asked Beyer whether he regretted giving up MOSFET production.
"We don't see that as an advantage," Beyer replied. PWMs have many diverse applications, he explained. Some benefit from the integration of the MOSFET gate drivers on-chip with the PWM (a capability Intersil retains); other applications do not benefit from this coupling. "There's a myriad of products out there," he stated.
While power management products remains close to half of Intersil's current business, the product line is extremely divese and includes graphics card voltage regulators, ACPI sleep mode regulators, memory management controls, handheld battery management devices, and server hot swap controllers " as well as Pentium core voltage regulators.
To say that the company's position in the Pentium power market was "under siege" would be too strong a statement (an exaggeration of market conditions), Beyer said. "Let's face it: Any good market attracts competitors. And this one does too." There were four or five competitors - "solid companies" - he acknowledged. Beyer believes Intersil still retains a 50 percent share.
Several years ago, Intersil acquired several PowerSmart, the Duracell spinout that helped invent battery-monitoring technology. Battery management devices (prticularly fuel gauges) are now becoming value-added built-ins for MP3 and other portable media players, Beyer said - and that's a ship just now starting to come in for Intersil. Thus, the PowerSmart acquisition would appear a most fortuitous investment (a new source of revenue) at a time when it was almost forgotten.
I was reminded of Mike Hackworth's remarks when he was building a broad based personal computer peripheral chip business (disk drive ICs, modems, and graphics chips - "The other computer inside") at the time he served as CEO of Cirrus Logic. "Sometimes," he jested, "it's better to be more lucky than smart."
For all we know, the portable consumer products business could flourish to such a multi-billion dollar extent that Intersil never cares about relinquishing any share of the Pentium power management market ("power what?!") But until that time, the question I raised in that year-old column - "Will the real Intersil please stand up?" - still remains an open one.