SHANGHAI – China fabless chip company Rockchip is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Just nine months ago, Fuzhou Rockchip Electronics, a developer of apps processor for tablets, looked almost invincible. The company introduced itself at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas as China’s next rock star. “The sky is the limit,” Rockchip’s proclaimed in a press release.
[Get ready for the
China Fabless Summit 2013, our Spring forum where Chinese startups will showcase their plans for the future of the electronics industry.]
While the sky hasn't exactly fallen on Rockchip since then, the
Android-based media tablet market has gotten far more competitive. By volume, the Android tablet sector has grown to an estimated 80 million units, outpacing the 75 million iPads sold by Apple thus far, according to estimates by Rockchip vice president Feng Chen. But an equal explosion has occurred among suppliers of apps processors for Android-based tablets, with everyone chasing the same market.
Allwinner changes the landscape
Rockchip faces stiff competition from multinational chip companies like Samsung Electronics and Taiwanese behemoth MediaTek. Meanwhile, a host of Chinese chip suppliers are coming after Rockchip, undercutting it on price, features and integration plans.
At the beginning of 2012, the target price of a 7-inch capacitive screen media tablet featuring Cortex-A8 was $99. That price has since dropped to around $65, due largely to Allwinner, a red-hot Chinese fabless company that has flooded the tablet market with its own turnkey system. Speaking of the trend, one industry observer in Shenzhen noted, “It’s a bad news for the whole industry.”
Rockchip's situation vividly illustrates the challenges most Chinese fabless chip companies now face.
During a recent interview with EE Times here, Rockchip’s Chen (right) said, “This is a new world war we’re fighting.” Gazing at the breakfast table, Chen added, “It’s tough. But at least I’ll have a story to tell my grandchild someday.”
Indeed, nearly every apps processor vendor here is in a rough spot because “the time-to-market requirement has gotten much shorter," he noted. "Worse, catching the market rhythm or cycle -- at the right time – has become much harder.”
Rockchip has invested in licensing or purchasing IP cores. In an effort to amortize its investment, the company has been developing as many as six chips a year using those IP cores. “Previously, we may have developed one chip for Tier-One customer,” said Chen.
“But now, as end-product cycles get shorter, we do everything from designing a chip to developing a board and software that goes around the hardware -- literally within a couple of months,” he explained. In March, for example, Rockchip got back from a foundry RK3066, a dual-core Cortex A9 chip with a quad-core Mali-400 GPU. By April, it hustled to showcase sample tablets based on the chip at the Hong Kong Electronics Fair. By May, the company began shipping the new apps processor to its customers' end products.
Betting on Globalfoundries
As the apps processor competition intensifies, the question is how Rockchip can differentiate itself?
Chen said the company may at times have been “a year behind in our prodcut offerings, when compared to apps processors from big guys" like Qualcomm and Samsung. Rockchip’s new strategy is focused on “contracting” the product cycle to fill technology gaps. Hence, it is betting on Globalfoundries’ industry-leading 28-nm SoC platform based on high-k metal gate technology for its upcoming RK31xx chip.
the rhombus tech initiative, along with the EOMA-68 standard, has been designed to tackle the very problems that RockChip and other SoC vendors face. our strategy is very straightforward:
a) invite SoC vendors to release EVBs in a standardised modular form which can go straight into mass-production, needing only a very simple 2 to 4 layer PCB for the main I/O of any matching product.
b) standardise and therefore greatly simplify the software development. the advantage of having standard I/O boards (products into which the CPU Modules can fit) is that the software for those products will already have been written. porting a CPU Card to work in a range of existing hardware products is far, far simpler than forcing everyone to design complete products from scratch (including the software).
the cost savings and time savings should be evident, and this is absolutely critical and will only become more so as the prices are driven down further by 28nm and beyond, as well as the product lifecycles becoming shorter and shorter.
it's quite complex to explain initially but very straightforward once it's fully understood, and very exciting as well. would you be so kind as to mention to Mr Chen that we would love to work with him, especially to help introduce RockChip CPUs properly into the Free Software Community, which will result in considerable engineering cost saving for RockChip, apart from anything else? i am easy to find on the internet but here is my email address anyway: email@example.com
many thanks junko,
Few things: There are high quality tablets using the RK3066. Currently writing from my one of such tablet and it has a 9.7" IPS Screen, Capacitive Touch (10 points touch) made of scratch-resistent glass, The back is made of metal, 8000mah battery, Dual Camera, HDMI, WiFi 802.11b/g/n with direct/USB Host and it is running Android 4.1 and it cost me just $180.
RK3066 is much faster than Mediatek's MT6577. For example it receive AnTuTu benchmark score of more than 8000 while MT6577 receive around 5400. (Screen resolution of the RK3066 tablet is 1024*768 while MT6577 phone 960*540 Both 1GB RAM)
Dear Junko, Thankyou to you and Mr. Chen for answering my query. You guys are increasing your fanbase. :)
@Junko, I'll be waiting for for articles from you. Bookmark'd.
@Mr. Chen, I along with Android developer community is eagerly waiting for your positive decision towards creating a helpful growing developer community.
Best wishes for RockChip
2-3 years ago, ordered straight out of Shenzhen a $100 7 inch tablet by Eken running Donut on some Rockchip model. As this was a dry run to test the form-factor (me like!) rather than a serious technology investment, I was neither surprised nor too disappointed when the bugger died in phases after a month, a common experience among other owners.
This doesn't necessarily reflect negatively on the RockChip part, but the company may be condemned, at best, to 'rule in hell', with no prospect of serving in the heaven of a line of better devices.
Dear Junko - the article and the discussion is indeed refreshing and constructive - thank you.
As smartphones are heading toward $50 and tablets to $100 price, application processor vendors in China are exploring adequate low cost solutions. As evidenced by use of copper wires in 28nm for a dual core Cortex A-9 processor by Rockchip.
It would be useful to hear thoughts about which performance factor is driving Rockchip eventual plans for flip-chip interconnect and away from wire bond -- is it processor frequency, number of processor cores (from two toward four), or memory interface speed requirement, total number of wires (wire count), other?
Flip-chip reduces on-chip IR drop compared to wirebond but wirebond still meets noise margins in Rockchip's current products. Apparently as the saying goes - where is the will (to lower costs) there is a way (for wire bond) even at 28nm. So -- where are the limits to wirebond in mobile application processors? Many thanks in advance.
Hi, axeteve. This just in from Rockchip's Feng Chen to respond to your question via e-mail:
"In the market, Rockchip’s software normally considered more stable than the competitors. As the Android
system upgrade real fast, in order to make sure the system stability we do not open the source code.
But considering the openness of the android community and Google’s upgrade cycle now getting longer,
we are considering open the SDK now for mature version."
Dear Junko, Great Post.
Enjoyed every word you've written. Also it's nice to see that Mr. Chen is open to questions.
Here is my question for Mr. Chen,
Developers are eager to support Amlogic chips, more then compared to Rockchip processors, as Amlogic have realeased Source code, which helps independent developers to develop further on platform. And thus create a favorable community support for Amlogic tablets .
Why Rockchip is not considering the same approach and release the Source code for their processors ?
And wish him Good Luck, eagerly waiting for the new RockChip processors.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.