SAN FRANCISCO — Across town from the big mound of dirt where contractors are starting work on Apple's new circular headquarters, Samsung is building its own high-tech temple. In a press reception here, a handful of execs outlined plans for memory and display R&D there.
These big construction projects are monuments to the fact that Silicon Valley remains one of the hot global hubs in the electronics business. Like so many other companies, Samsung wants to tap into the top-drawer pool of component, system, and semiconductor talent here -- and, of course, a lot of angel and VC investors.
Since 2012, the executives said, most of Samsung's employees have worked outside Korea (190,000 of 286,000 last year). But some of the brightest lights are still in and around Seoul. For instance, even though the San Jose display lab headed by Brian Berkeley will take the lead for issues like user experience, interfaces and formats, and driver electronics, the core display technology remains back at home base.
Interestingly, Berkeley said the emerging OLED technology now accounts for 29% of all mobile displays (by dollars, I assume) and was a $10 billion business last year. Prices are still high, keeping OLEDs from reaching their full potential in TVs, he said, but yields for the displays are on the rise.
Samsung's new San Jose building will sport a sandwich of green between and around its 10 office floors.
The memory lab is headed Bob Brennan, a smart-as-a-whip system architect. But he tips his hat to the geniuses back in Korea who have been hammering out technologies like vertical NAND flash and new ways to scale DRAM.
Most of Samsung's chip development is in Korea, too, though it has a growing team near its fab in Austin. Interestingly, several sources said Samsung had an ARM server SoC project in Silicon Valley, but it was cancelled recently when the customer, a big local datacenter (Google? Facebook?), opted out of the project.
I asked Hong Hao, a newly named senior vice president of Samsung's foundry business, about the ARM server project after he told me he used to run an SoC program in San Jose. He just smiled broadly and said he couldn't comment on rumors.
Hao showed a chart of Samsung's foundry offerings. It consists of three flavors of 28nm offerings (maybe more to come) and two of the 14nm FinFET variety. The missing planar 20nm node is one Samsung supposedly keeps only for internal use.
It will be interesting to see who gets to a 16/14nm FinFET node next -- Samsung and its partner Globalfoundries or TSMC. Though TSMC is reportedly getting the Apple iPhone 6 chip business, the Samsung/GloFo deal was supposedly motivated to get big deals from companies such as Qualcomm. Of course, Intel will beat all of them; it is expected to start making its x86 chips at 14 nm late this year after many delays.
This is clearly an industry of fewer, bigger players cultivating expanding ecosystems and making fewer, bigger bets.
Someday visitors will probably be able to see Intel's headquarters from the top of the new Samsung building, but that new "spaceship" Apple is building will be just beyond the horizon -- and appropriately, so given the inscrutably secretive company it is.
— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times