GENEVA After a sluggish 2005 that marked a dip in its once-dominant share of the set-top market, STMicroelectronics is back to "kicking (the competition's) butt," according to Christos Lagomichos, vice president, general manager of ST's Home Entertainment Group.
According to ST, the company slipped in certain set-top box market segments last year. ST lost share with one United States low-end satellite operator; with certain low-end customers the company decided not to participate; and in free-to-air market, where expectations were not met.
The key to ST's comeback is the industry's first single-chip H.264/VC-1/MPEG-2 decoder IC, called STB7100. ST announced the chip more than 18 months ago in Jan. 2005. Broadcom charges that the STB7100 decoder required some major debugging. ST's position is that ST is still the only company with a single-chip multi-standard decoder IC based on a 90nm process technology, a distinction that essentially gives ST a "9 to 12 month lead," Lagomichos said.
The next battleground for set-top ICs is quickly shifting to chips made on 65nm, according to both ST and Broadcom.
ST's Lagomichos said, "Last year, I was criticized for adopting the new technology [90 nm process] too early" to push a multi-standard decoder chip into the high definition-enabled set-top market. But this year, his aggressive strategy is paying off. As ST indicated late last fall, ST, together with Sagem Communications, announced the immediate availability of the world's first MPEG4 set-top boxes (STBs) based on its single-chip STB7100.
In hopes of keeping its head start, ST is moving its set-top chip to 65nm process. ST's prototype chip based on the 65nm process will come out this summer. Volume production is slated in mid 2007.
But ST's competitors aren't sitting still. While acknowledging that all his decoder chips shipping today are based on 0.13 micron CMOS, Brian Sprague, Broadcom's vice president of marketing for STB & DTV, broadband communication group, said that Broadcom has decided to skip 90nm. "We saw no benefit over 0.13 micron, in terms of density or power reduction," he said. "As a company, Broadcom is quickly migrating to 65nm," he said.
Broadcom is currently shipping its 2-chip solution, the BCM7030/7411, designed to handle H.264/MPEG-2 decoding. The two-chip solution in volume productionhas been designed into boxes for EchoStar, DirecTV, B Sky B, Sky Italia, Premier and others, according to Sprague. Broadcom's upcoming single-chip H.264/VC-1/MPEG-2 solutions, called BCM7401 and 7402, won't be in volume production until the second half of this year.
ST's Lagomichos believes ST has an advantage because of the company's dual process strategy. Since the process technology used at the Crolles 2 Alliance a joint operation among ST, Philips Semiconductors and Freescale and that of TSMC are interchangeable, "we can take advantage of the competition between the two," said Lagomichos.