It's marketing tremors from Intel Corp., not the aftermath of Taiwan's recent earthquake, that is weighing on the minds of the island's three independent core-logic- chipset vendors.
Although the trio is beating Intel to the punch by rolling out faster chipsets equipped with a PC133 SDRAM interface, Via Technologies Inc., Silicon Integrated Systems Inc. (SiS), and Acer Laboratories Inc. (ALI) are bracing for the MPU giant to come roaring back next year with a competitive PC133-enabled device of its own.
After months of characterizing the PC133 standard as a non-starter, Intel in August finally threw its support behind the memory interface. But even after embracing the technology due to the lack of Direct Rambus DRAM availability, Intel wants to retard PC133 adoption until it can get its own chipset into the market next year, according to many analysts.
The company might be getting its wish.
Via, which launched the industry's first PC133 chipset this fall, has put customers on allocation because of the surge in orders, said Jonathan Chang, the Taipei, Taiwan, company's vice president of operations and sales. But pumping out additional chipsets will be a challenge. Via was counting on IBM Microelectronics as a second source, but the Fishkill, N.Y., company last week told EBN that it won't produce the Via Apollo Pro 133 chipset, or manufacture it for itself. IBM would have given Via much-needed leverage in the market.
Chang said Via will continue negotiating with IBM in an effort to boost supply. Currently, National Semiconductor Corp. is Via's only manufacturing source.
Legal issues also are preventing Via from signing other foundries as alternate fab sources. Intel this summer filed suit to stop Via from using unlicensed foundries to manufacture PC133 chipsets, which are designed with Intel's 133-MHz processor frontside-bus technology and AGP 4X graphics link. As of last week the standoff continued, Chang said.
Despite the legal wranglings, Via's president, Wen-chi Chen, said the company hopes to ride the crest of the PC133 market and surpass Intel as the leading chipset producer by 2001. Via expects chipset sales this year will exceed $300 million.
"Actually, Via could help Intel by increasing the demand with our chipsets, connecting Celeron processors with the higher-speed PC133 memory," Chen said. "It doesn't make sense for Intel to be in the low-cost chipset business for Celeron," he added, suggesting that the company focus on higher-end, higher-margin chipsets.
SiS, which recently added PC133 support, expects to directly compete with Intel on chipset production next year when it opens its first fab. Adjoining its Hsinchu Science-based Industrial Park headquarters, the facility can leverage CPU technology SiS licensed from microprocessor vendor Rise Technology Co.
Alex Wu, director of SiS' desktop division, said the company needs its own fab to achieve $1 billion in sales by 2002. "At that level, we would have 35,000 8-in.- wafer starts a month, making our own fab very cost-effective," he said.The SiS fab will start pilot-line production in February 2000, and enter full production in the second half of the year. The fab initially will use quarter-micron processing, which Wu said will be upgraded to 0.18 micron by the end of 2000.
Wu denied industry speculation that the company is building its own fab because of problems with Taiwan's foundries. The company did, however, go outside the country to have some chipsets produced by Chartered Semiconductor Pte. Ltd. in Singapore, an arrangement that ensured supply regardless of any disruption the earthquake might have caused Taiwan's foundries. "We're getting excellent service. In fact, we will continue to use [Taiwan's] foundries for some of our chipsets," Wu said.
Showing some guts, SiS will be the only chipset maker of the three to have its own fab. Via will continue to use foundries for its chipsets and has no desire to build its own fab, Chen maintained.
But SiS' courage really showed when the company shipped its 630 chipset with integrated graphics functions eight months before Intel's 810.
"They took a big risk introducing the first integrated chipset long before Intel," said Chin Wu, president of rival chipset manufacturer ALI, Taipei. "Now, integrated chipsets look like a growing trend. It will depend on how successful Intel is with the 810. Because of their market dominance, they set the pace."
ALI is also ramping up to grab chipset sales from Intel. The company recently introduced a spate of products, and in August rolled out its first integrated core-logic chipset, the Aladdin, which uses Nvidia Inc.'s TNT-2 graphics technology.
ALI also will add PC133 support to chipsets this fall for both Intel's and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s processors, Wu said. This quarter, the company will start production of an AMD Athlon chipset, having built a strong sales base with chipsets supporting AMD K6 processors, particularly for notebooks.
Unlike SiS, ALI isn't into taking big risks. The company is making an effort to diversify, with plans to expand into the emerging DVD drive market. ALI is currently producing an MPEG-2 video and audio decoder and controller chipset that will ship in volume this quarter.
"Intel's not there," ALI's Wu said. "[DVD chips] will prepare us to expand into the Internet appliance market as it develops."
Via also is expanding beyond PC133 chipsets, and plans to support double-data-rate SDRAM "whenever the market wants it," Chen said. Via will not support Direct Rambus DRAM, however. "DDR is going to be a far bigger selling product than Rambus," Chen said.
Intel has said it is considering producing its own chipset to support DDR for servers, and once again Via believes the two
companies can complement each other in the market.
"We have already helped Intel in the 440BX [chipset] shortage," Chen said, claiming that without Via's compat-
ible chipset line as an alternate source, Intel's microprocessor sales could well have suffered.
Chen declined to comment on industry reports that Via is developing a chipset for IBM's and Motorola Inc.'s PowerPC processors. He would only go as far as to say that Via's goal is to develop core chipset technologies that can be used in a mix-and-match design "to create a general-purpose family of chipsets for all CPUs."