SAN JOSE, Calif. A ban on imports into the U.S. of a broad range of chips using fine-pitch BGA packages potentially has far reaching impact. The ban touches everything from high-profile products such as the Amazon Kindle to emerging high-growth products such as netbooks as well as mainstream cellphones, set-top boxes, digital cameras and an often unseen world of embedded systems such as industrial controls.
But nearly three weeks after the ban went into effect it is still difficult to gauge the impact of the ruling or even find out exactly which chips it covers. The case highlights the difficulties electronics companies face dealing with a rising tide of patent enforcement issues.
The International Trade Commission ruled May 20 that the ATI division of Advanced Micro Devices, Freescale, Spansion, STMicroelectronics and Qualcomm infringe two patents of Tessera Technologies Inc. The ITC issued a limited exclusion order banning the companies from importing into the U.S. chips that use fine-pitch BGA packages described in the patents.
The ruling went into effect July 20 following a review by the U.S. Trade Representative. The chip makers are challenging the ruling and the patents in court and at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in on-going proceedings.
A handful of OEMs expressed frustration figuring out what chips are affected and how to deal with the ruling. The ITC process lays out some general guidelines but leaves it to chip vendors to make private communications with OEMs about what products are affected and how to cope with the bans.
A few things are clear. The bans only affect import of chips, not systems using them. Thus anyone buying chips and assembling them into systems outside the U.S. are unaffected.
In court documents, the ITC said "there are multiple, licensed sources of chips with minimum package sizes," as alternatives to the chips found to infringe the patents. Tessera said it has 60 licensees of its technology.
The chip makers in question say they have communicated privately with their OEM customers to ensure the ban will have little to no impact. But some systems companies apparently have fallen through the cracks.
"This is killing us right now," said one OEM who identified himself as an industrial controls developer and an embedded software manager in a comment to an earlier story on the ban. "Freescale has been too quiet on the issue, leaving us to believe we need to burn through some dollars to design them out," he said.
"I'm a 25-year Motorola/Freescale believer that may have to mark them off my list of trusted embedded micro vendors," he added.
"It's a big issue for me," said another comment from a reader who identified himself as a design engineer. "So somehow I need a really good crystal ball to manage this transition—[things] are hard enough without this potential whopper of a problem," he added.
"I ran into this with the popular Spansion S29GL series parallel NOR flash parts," said a hardware engineer commenting on the story. "Luckily Numonyx makes a pin-compatible replacement," he said.
"Freescale has had to completely remove the i.MX ARM-based application processor line off its Web site just prior to the Freescale Technology Forum Virtual Conference at a time when they were launching a brand new family of i.MX25 processors for industrial automation applications," said a commenter who identified himself as an embedded software consultant.