BENGALURU, India The story of Wipro, one of India's many outsourcing conglomerates, is as good example as any of where India's tech industry stands on its journey to become a hub of electronics design.
On Dec. 28, 1945two years before India became an independent countryWipro was formed as West India Vegetable Products Ltd. to sell seeds. As it grew, it branched out into crushed seeds, then cooking oils and, later, soaps. With its profits, it invested in a hydraulics businesswhich, with a recent acquisition in Sweden, has now become the second largest in the world.
In the early 1970s, India's government famously forced multinational companies such as Coca-Cola and IBM out of the country. Taxes on imported electronics systems soared to 300 percent overnight, opening the door for Wipro and other growing conglomerates to buy components from overseas, then assemble their own computers and other gear for the local market.
For a time, such companies became important beta sites for Intel 386 and 486 processors and other computer chips. They designed their own motherboards, chassis and operating systems for everything from minicomputers to desktop PCs. But some 20 years later, the government switched policies, lowered tariffs and invited the multinationals back in.
"When the tariffs came off, our economies of scale were not good enough to compete with likes of IBM and Hewlett-Packard. So we had to decide what to do, given that Wipro has a policy of not laying off anyone," said Anand Valavi, an engineering manager at Wipro Technologies who was hired right out of college in 1994just before the political shiftto design PC motherboards.
"People like me started taking on design projects for the worldwide market. That was the beginning of our design services business," said Anand, who helped establish, and now heads, the company's analog and mixed-signal design group.
Wipro snagged AT&T and Nortel as its first two big customersdeals that led to a shift in its primary focus, from computers to telecom. Today, it counts a laundry list of such companiesincluding Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Motorola and Nokiaamong its customers. What was a 50-person computer R&D team has bloomed into a diverse R&D services division with as many as 17,500 software and hardware engineers worldwide.
"Our vision is to be one of the world's top 10 companies," said Lakshminarayana Lan, the company's chief strategy officer.
The government policy shift led Wipro to extend its expertise in designing printed-circuit boards to developing its own semiconductor blocks and ASICs, in order to address the needs of its new telecom and PC customers.
"ASICs were new to us, but we figured there was no magic to it," said Valavi. "We put a group and tool flow together, started some basic designs for standard interfaces, and implemented them in such a way that people could put them in their chips, so we could license the blocks to others."
Within 18 months, Wipro had USB and FireWire blocks it could license to other companies or use in its own ASICs. It has nearly 90 FireWire licensees today.
As it grew, the group invested some of its cash in acquiring silicon intellectual-property firms and design houses in European markets to reach new customers. Deals in Germany, Finland and elsewhere helped Wipro expand its expertise.
A 2005 acquisition of Austria's New Logic added Wi-Fi and Bluetooth IP blocks in 180-nanometer technology to the portfolio, which the company has since upgraded to 130-nm and 90-nm designs. Wipro recently bought a wireless design center that Japan's Oki had operated in Singapore, thereby adding DVB and ZigBee expertise. Its silicon IP group now employs about 200 people.
In the late 1990s, Wipro became the second company certified as an ARM design partner. "We were early in the system-on-chip cycle," said Vasudevan A., who leads the company's 2,000-person hardware design group.
That group's 1,000 ASIC designers now kick out about 100 ASICs a year, putting it among the top tier of fabless design companies, said Sudip Nandy, chief executive of the telecom and product engineering group, which oversees all electronics design services. About half its current chip business involves delivering a full spec-to-GDSII design service; the rest is in lower-level jobs, such as verification or layout of other companies' designs, and in selling its silicon IP.