MIPS is a "business decision"
Liu, however, is adamant that Ingenic's choice of MIPS is a "business decision." MIPS is what Ingenic teams know and how the company believes it can differentiate itself and its products from others. "We are doing MIPS because we want to stay original," Liu told EE Times in Beijing.
Significantly, Ingenic is unlike most China fabless companies, which design mobile apps processors by cobbling together various IP blocks licensed from elsewhere. Ingenic's team was working on MIPS CPU designs well before the company purchased licenses for MIPS architecture instruction sets in 2009.
Liu noted, "We have a MIPS architecture license, we design our own processor cores and multimedia elements that go into SoCs on our own." As for 3D graphics, Ingenic licensed it from Vivante, and more recently PowerVR from Imagination.
What killed MIPS in mobile
In April 2012, Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at The Linley Group, wrote a piece entitled "Stranger in an ARM World," discussing the Ingenic-designed MIPS CPU for the JZ4770 mobile processor:
Ingenic designed its own CPU, called XBurst. Implementing the MIPS32 (release 2) instruction set, this CPU uses a simple scalar design. In 65nm LP, it operates at 1.0GHz (1.2GHz at overvoltage). The single-core JZ4770 should have performance similar to that of single-core Cortex-A5 processors running at the same speed.
In addition to low cost, Ingenic designed the JZ4770 for low power as well. At 1.0GHz, the XBurst CPU uses 90mW. The entire processor consumes less than 300mW, according to the company. These figures should help mobile designers use smaller, lighter, and less expensive batteries.
In the same 2012 article, Gwennap was hopeful for Ingenic, citing "millions of dollars savings Ingenic made, compared with the cost of an ARM architecture license." Gwennap was optimistic about MIPS in the Android market, noting "most Android apps are architecture-neutral and run on any instruction set."
In the last couple of years, Ingenic has seemingly made the right moves to get MIPS accepted in the Android world. Ingenic snagged support for MIPS from Google on Android 4.1 in 2012. It also developed a binary translator for MIPS and opened it to Imagination Technologies.
But in the end, Gwennap's cautious 2012 analysis was prescient about MIPS's demise in the tablet market. Gwennap wrote, "One drawback of this processor for tablet use is its lack of compatibility with some Android apps. The MIPS architecture provides some technical advantages, but end users may not care about that if they can't run their favorite apps."
When reached by EE Times for follow-up this week, Gwennap said, "The large number of apps available on ARM makes it difficult for any other architecture to succeed in smartphones or tablets...
"Consider that Intel has made little headway in mobile despite spending years optimizing its binary translator and also investing heavily in getting the leading apps ported natively to x86. The MIPS camp is well behind Intel in this type of investment."
Ingenic's MIPS-powered tablet in the educational market
Onto wearable devices
Since the company's single-core JZ4770 launched in 2011, Ingenic has continued to develop its XBurst-based JZ747XX series SoCs.
The Ingenic-designed XBurst CPU adopts a pipeline engine that can emit instructions with very little power, according to the company. Liu explained that the JZ747XX series has penetrated into e-dictionary, PMP, e-book, tablet, and wearable devices quickly. Since its inception of the series in 2007, Ingenic has shipped more than 30 million units.
Although Ingenic still holds some market share in the educational tablet market, the company has switched gears since 2012, setting its sights on the emerging market of wearable devices with Newton, a platform for the Internet of Things.
Industry analysts believe that despite Ingenic's withdrawal from the tablet segment, there's plenty of opportunity to pursue wearables.
Next page: Analysts' views