There are many reasons why a semiconductor component might be branded with markings that differ from those of its actual manufacturer. A case in point is the Apple iPhone, which includes multiple devices from large companies (such as Broadcom, Philips, Samsung and Texas Instruments); all the devices carry Apple package markings.
Apple may be trying to extend its competitive advantage by obfuscating the identity of the components used in its system. Since the iPhone's release, Semiconductor Insights has analyzed three clones that have followed it to market, and still more clones have subsequently been released. The initial systems that we looked at were "clones" only in the sense that they leveraged the iPhone name and (to some extent) form factor or style, but the successive generations of iPhone clones have increasingly resembled the actual product. De- vices whose components carry Apple package branding retard imitators' progress in duplicating the original product's functionality.
The use of branded components can also confound efforts to understand a product's bill-of-materials costs. When the iPhone first hit the market, the 4-Gbyte and 8-Gbyte versions sold for $499 and $599, respectively. Soon afterward, the 4-Gbyte version was canceled, and the price for the 8-Gbyte version dropped by $200--but the pair's initial sales had already captured significant volumes for Apple.
Although some observers had speculated about the specifics of the iPhone's bill of materials, only organizations capable of decapping devices could discover the actual parts manufacturers and thereby properly gauge the system cost.
Still, the use of branded components slowed the attempts of companies such as Semiconductor Insights and Por- telligent to do that type of analysis.
Semiconductor Insights searched the Web in vain for info on this Infineon-marked part. |
What about chip vendors? What motivation could they have to refrain from clearly branding their components in ways that make the parts recognizable to anyone who opens up a consumer product? There are a few explanations.
One is that rebranding can affect pricing--and it can do so either positively or negatively, depending on the agreements in place. Systems providers may be willing to pay additional sums to keep chip vendors' brands off providers' devices, making chip vendors willing to make such a visibility sacrifice.
Similarly, some chip vendors may be willing to trade pricing discounts for design wins. What's more, if other suppliers then try to use that pricing information as leverage to get discounts, chip vendors can call such cases unique ones in which they had to rebrand devices, applying the "special pricing" only to the rebranded devices. Thus, chip vendors are in less jeopardy of eroding their profits and margins, while still doing what is necessary to win big design bids.
Decapping the Infineon PMB6293A [middle right] on Vodafone's board uncovered Axiom's AX502 quadband PA. |
Nondisclosure agreements may also play a role in component branding. The companies that were awarded design wins for the iPhone signed a strict NDA. Even when confronted with die markings clearly identifying their chips, they would not discuss the win.
Companies may also allow the rebranding of components that are not theirs to begin with, as in the case of the Axiom die of the Infineon PMB6293A found inside the Vodafone 226. The Vodafone product is a fairly straightforward entry-level handset that operates on the dual-band GSM network and has the basic functionality expected of low-cost systems. The phone offers 128 x 128-pixel resolution with 65k colors on a 1.8-inch screen. It measures 103 mm x 46 mm x 10 mm and weighs 65 grams. Its estimated standby time is up to 240 hours, but its talk time less than 3.
Axiom die mark found under cap of Infineon-marked device. Axiom traded branding for Vodafone design win. |
This phone caught my eye because of the Infineon PMB6293A housed inside. Searches on the Internet, including the Infineon Web site, didn't turn up information about what the device might be, even though the package markings clearly identified it as an Infineon part.
A decap solved the mystery, revealing the die markings AX502. That number iden- tifies a GSM/GPRS quadband power am- plifier (PA) from Axiom Microdevices.
The AX502 is a GPRS Class 12 single-chip design using a 0.13-micrometer CMOS process. The device is claimed to be able to match input and output circuits without using external components, reducing the bill of materials for OEMs without creating interference for the transceiver.
But why would an Axiom device be located in an Infineon package?
The answer is evident when looking at Axiom, a fairly recent entrant (founded only in 2002) into the semiconductor industry. A new company can often find it difficult to get the attention of the industry's big players. So what can a relatively small newcomer do to garner the attention it wants? It can partner with someone else to build its brand, as Axiom did--a tried and tested method that's taught in marketing courses.
Partnerships assure customers that the devices they buy are robust and that the company they buy from is reliable. Systems designers, who worry that components may cease to be able to be supplied (whether because of unexpectedly high de- mand or because of product discontinuation), often have a second source for devices (the memory components in Apple's iPods have been found to include both Samsung and Toshiba branding). They can also avoid using components from vendors they fear cannot meet their expectations for quantity or longevity.
Companies must show that they can be relied upon even before they have built the credibility and resources to prove so. By partnering with well-known Infineon to advance the AX502, Axiom was able to secure a design win in a volume cell phone.
As more startups enter the market with an increasing number of products for sale, we can expect to see more of this type of marketing.
Gregory A. Quirk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is technical marketing manager at IC analysis company Semiconductor Insights, a CMP company.