The worldwide semiconductor market grew 5% last year to a record $315 billion, despite a nearly 10% drop in PC sales and a smartphone market whose viral growth appears to be slowing for the first time in several years.
The $315 billion figure, which Gartner reported Thursday, is almost $10 billion higher than estimates published by the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) just a month ago.
However, Gartner analyst Andrew Norwood said in his report that, rather than showing the industry in glowing health, the numbers reveal inconsistencies and supply chain failures, especially among makers of memory chips. Their revenue rose 23.5% due to short supplies and rising prices, rather than growing demand.
The shortage-driven cost of memory also helped create an enormous disparity among manufacturers, Norwood said. The 25 biggest semiconductor makers reported an average revenue increase of 6.9%, compared with just 0.9% for companies in the rest of the market.
"Memory, and particularly DRAM, led this growth" and led to the disparity between companies at the top of the market and those at the bottom.
For example, a Sept. 4 fire that forced the temporary closure of a SK Hynix factory in Wuxi, China, helped drive 2GB DDR3 DRAM chip prices up 42% by the end of September. For the full year, SK Hynix -- the world's second-largest memory manufacturer -- reported a 40.8% revenue increase that put it among top five semiconductor makers in revenue for the first time. By contrast, Intel's revenue dropped 1% due to weak PC sales, though it remains the market leader, and its revenue and marketshare are still almost half again that of No. 2 Samsung.
A DRAM shortage has actually helped the chip industry.
On Feb. 3, the SIA posted a slightly lower but still-record market figure of $305.6 billion.
In a press release, SIA president and CEO Brian Toohey said the year showed consistent, steady growth of 4.8% "across nearly all regions and product categories," despite a December spike. For the full year, the market grew 7.7% worldwide, 12.7% in Europe, and 17.3% in the US.
In an update this week to the McClean Report issued in January, IC Insights said tablet and smartphone multiprocessors will be the biggest-selling integrated circuits this year, followed by DRAM and NAND chips. However, the growing popularity of low-end smartphones will improve the results for comparatively small players, including MediaTek.
In a presentation on the report in January, IC Insights president Bill McClean said he believed a sluggish global economy will hold the numbers down. "This year looks pretty good -- not great, but better than last year. Really good growth in this industry is double-digit. Anything else is just OK."