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.
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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.