SANTA CLARA, Calif. – ST Ericsson announced it has opened a small technical office in Silicon Valley as it scrambles to get ahead of the curve in the hyper competitive market for smartphone and tablet chips. It demoed its current HSPA+ products running Android here and talked about plans for LTE chips and support for Windows Phone software in the coming year.
The company's NovaThor Tech Center will provide local technical support and be a meeting place for partnerships and demos. It currently has a staff of about 50, rising to about 150 over the next 18 months.
At the launch, ST Ericsson demoed its U8500 integrated applications processor and HSPA+ baseband running on a new board geared for software developers. The chip supported stereo 3-D graphics, 1080-progressive video playback, games with motion sensors and a browser supporting augmented reality.
The processor uses a dual-core ARM Cortex A9 with Mali 400 graphics. In demos it supported Symbian and the Gingerbread and Honeycomb versions of Android.
The company does not have demo-ready versions of its next-generation discrete LTE baseband and application processor announced in February and slated for production in mid-2012. The schedule is behind that of rival Qualcomm which is expected to supply the first LTE handsets. However, the ST Ericsson chip will support eight LTE spectrum bands on a single RF transceiver.
ST Ericsson has taped out a dual-core ARM Cortex A-15 set to ship in 2012. It will outgun rivals including the Omap 5 from Texas Instruments because the STE chip uses the Imagination Rogue graphics core, said Gilles Delfassy, chief executive of ST Ericsson and former head of TI's wireless business unit. Due to use of a new vector-processing architecture, the chip should also have smaller size, cost and power consumption than its rivals, he added.
In software, ST Ericsson is playing catch up with the shift by Nokia, a lead customer, from Symbian to Windows Phone. It does not expect to support Nokia's first Windows Phone 7 handsets, but it has put a team in place to support Windows Phone 8 on its chips.
Separately, the company expects the first tablets to use its chips will ship by the end of the year using Honeycomb.
ST Ericsson has seen its revenues and profits slide in recent quarters. Delfassy said the products in the pipeline along with other changes will help it get back on track.
"We have a road map which is very aggressive, but the key question is will we deliver on it on time," Delfassy said.
International Data Corp. analyst Mario Morales said smartphone makers want alternatives to integrated chips from Qualcomm, and are waiting on ST Ericsson to execute on its road map.
To that end, Delfassy said he has replaced some engineers in ST Ericsson and brought on two executives with strength in product execution. One is a senior vice president from the former Infineon wireless group who worked closely with Apple; another is a former Sony Ericsson executive who has supervised groups of more than a thousand engineers.
ST Ericsson has also simplified its product portfolio, pruning five modem technologies down to just one. It was the first company to deliver a 21 Mbit/second HSPA+ modem, Delfassy said.
So far ST Ericsson is not planning any quad-core products despite the fact rivals Nvidia and Qualcomm have announced plans for such parts. "We aim to be leaders in apps processors, but there is a big debate whether quad core is a case of diminishing returns," Delfassy said.
Delfassy also said that unlike Qualcomm he does not plan to design any custom ARM cores, something that requires and ARM architectural license.
"I never took an ARM architectural license when I was at TI, but we did have a Cortex A8 chip before others because we partnered better," Delfassy said. "I am of the opinion it's better to be leading partner of an IP provider than doing something on your own—that leading in a standard way is better than being alone in non-standard way," he added.