NEW YORK – As Taiwanese IC suppliers like MediaTek and Mstar continue to gobble up growing chip demand among China’s consumer electronics OEMs and ODMs, the set-top box and digital TV businesses don’t exactly look exciting (or lucrative) to the semiconductor market segment any longer – at least to most chip suppliers in the West.
Look no further than struggling financials of Trident Microsystems and Zoran Corp. in recent quarters.
But of course, for Broadcom, this is a very different story. Geneva-based STMicroelectronics, keeping up its competitive position against Broadcom, also sees an upside for digital TV – including Interne-connected TVs and 3-D TVs.
During the company’s Investor and Analyst Day Thursday (May 19th), DTV was among a few specific products identified by STMicroelectronics CEO Carlo Bozzoti as keys to “the top-line evolution” of the company’s automotive, consumer, computer & communications infrastructure (ACCI) business. Others singled out by Bozzoti as driving forces for growth and profitability include: ST’s 32-bit microcontroller (based on Power architecture) for automotives; ST-developed royalty-free displayport, and computer peripheral chips.
Actions taken by ST for its turnaround efforts over the past few years include a review of the product portfolio, a focused approach on R&D and manufacturing restructuring, according to Bozzoti.
While the company’s digital convergence mantra sounds almost outdated (everyone has been saying it for the last 15 years), one thing ST has done well is to execute the genuine “digital convergence” of IPs and SoC blocks developed by different groups of the company – in particular, ST-Ericsson’s apps processor development team and ST’s home entertainment and display (HED) group.
Switching from ST40 to ARM
The HED group, headed up Philippe Lambinet, ST’s senior executive vice president, is switching its processing core from ST40 (based on SH4 core originally developed Hitachi) to ARM in its Gen. 4 platform designed for open Internet-connected TV. While the Gen 4 is scheduled for 2012 rollout, the bulk of this core work of porting to ARM, in fact, has been already carried out by ST-Ericsson, not by Lambinet’s team.
ST-Ericsson, a couple of years ahead of ST’s HED group, ported ARM core to its ASIC library. ST-Ericsson team mapped its high-level description, trimmed it and optimized it to a high-performance low-power process, thus hardening the core, explained Gilles Delfassy, president and CEO of ST-Ericsson. “We are sharing that with ST,” he added. ST-Ericsson, meanwhile, didn’t have to develop its own digital video or audio codecs, as they got those well-proven cores from ST’s HED group.
This convergence offers a huge payoff to ST. It can rely on field-proven IPs and shorten the development cycle, while eliminating the duplication of engineering resources originally needed to optimize cores or develop specific blocks.
This move by ST, right off Broadcom’s playbook, demonstrates that if a company is disciplined enough, being a large chip vendor with a diversified product portfolio won’t work against it, but actually helps it.
Lambinet revealed that his group’s Gen 4 chip, named “Newman,” for Internet-connected TV, is adopting a block used in an ST-Ericsson chip based on dual-core 1.2GHz ARM Cortex-A9, now designed in by Samsung’s Galaxy S II.
Other notable blocks integrated in ST’s Gen 4 Newman chip include: quad-cores of Mali graphic engines; Motion-Corrected Temporal Interpolation and De-interlace blocks – ST gained through the acquisition of Genesis Microchip in 2007. The chip also features 3-D video, 2-D to 3-D conversion capabilities.
'Connected TV is a set-top box with a big screen'
Asked by an analyst if there’s still money to be made as a chip supplier for TV OEMs, Lambinet answered a resounding yes.
Bozzoti noted that the set-top box is still a great business today, but its growth potential may have passed. While Lambinet agreed on this, he emphasized that ST’s strong heritage in set-top box expertise can only help strengthen the company’s Internet-connected TV solutions.
“After all, connected TV is a set-top box with a big screen,” he said. “And that’s why we think both ST and Broadcom will do well in the growing Internet-connected TV market, whereas a company like Trident with much less history in set-top will struggle.”
Lambinet also noted that in the TV world, the captive market still remains strong as CE giants like Samsung, Panasonic, Sony and Toshiba continue to design and build their own TV chips.
While Samsung isn’t likely to give up the development of their own TV chips, TV is a sector that will eventually open to the merchant market, predicted Lambinet. In some cases where vendors are severely hit by the recent earthquake in Japan and can’t get their plants restarted, they are beginning to turn to ODMs. “The move to the merchant market has already started to happen in some ways,” said Lambinet.