Perhaps the least public and most intriguing part of Intel's SoC initiative involves the deal it announced with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. in March. The two companies said they are porting to a standard TSMC process Intel's low power Atom chip—the x86 core that will be at the heart of all its future SoCs.
The objective is to let companies design their own ASICs using the Atom core and TSMC's process technology, EDA tool flow and library of silicon blocks. But the rules of the road for such engagements, exactly what process they are targeting or the current status of the Atom port are all unclear.
Bohr said he believed the Atom port would be available in a TSMC 40-45nm process.
An Intel spokeswoman sketched out the business dynamics:
"The customer relationship belongs to Intel," she said. "If a customer decides on the Atom core they then will work with Intel to meet their requirements. If they want to use TSMC because of previous relationships or capabilities then Intel will work with the customer to make that happen. The financial terms are confidential."
TSMC declined to elaborate on the deal. "We are pretty much muzzled," a TSMC spokeswoman said.
Interestingly, neither Bohr nor Intel chief technology officer Justin Rattner could respond to analyst Tom Halfhill, senior editor of the Microprocessor Report, when he asked whether the deal means Intel is licensing Atom.
"They didn't really know the answer. They were confused and I was confused," said Halfhill.
Despite the murky details, the objective seems clear, said Linley Gwennap, principal of market watcher The Linley Group (Mountain View, Calif.). Intel wants to win away from IBM and others the lucrative and secretive business of making custom processors for next-generation videogame consoles and set-top boxes and other systems, he said.
Today, IBM makes ASICs for all three top consoles—the Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii and Sony Playstation. Set-top box giants such as Cisco System's Scientific Atlanta group create proprietary processors using cores such as the Sun Microsystems Sparc along with SA's own silicon blocks.
"There are really only a few companies in the world that want to do this" kind of ASIC design, said Gwennap. "If Intel wants to get into next-generation Xbox, they have to have an offering like this," he added.
Indeed, one unconfirmed report has already emerged about Sony using for its next-gen Playstation a version of Intel's upcoming Larrabee graphics processor. The chip uses an array of x86 cores in a manner roughly similar to the multicore IBM Cell, a proprietary variant of which is in today's Playstation.
The TSMC deal also marks Intel's first step toward building an ecosystem of partners around Atom-based SoCs. In this area, the PC giant is years behind archrival ARM which has a long list of well established licensees using its cores, especially for cellphone handsets, the big kahuna of new markets for Intel.
ARM's licensees get access to soft cores they can use in any way in their designs as long as they remain compatible with a defined instruction set. A handful of licensees such as Marvell and Qualcomm have architectural licenses with ARM, letting them create custom instruction sets with unique features or performance advantages.
One of Intel's highest profile customers, Apple Inc., appears to be emerging as one of Intel's competitors in SoCs for mobile devices.
"I believe Apple does have an ARM architectural license and is designing its own custom ARM cores for future iPhones and iPods," said Halfhill. "I think they brought the PA Semi team in to do custom ARM designs, but that's just my speculation," he added.
Unlike ARM, Intel has no synthesizeable version of its x86 core, preferring the performance of a fixed core defined in hardware to the flexibility of a software-based one. Ceva Inc. offers a similar service at TSMC with its hard DSP core.
Thus Intel's customers likely will be confined to using a hardware-defined core.
"It's a more restrictive model at best," said Halfhill, "and my understanding is Intel controls the design."