BEIJING — Let's be blunt: Not many serious players in the electronics industry today are sanguine about the survival chances for MIPS processors in a global mobile market where, in the last decade -- almost single-handedly -- ARM has built its formidable ecosystem.
Against that backdrop, the industry can't help but ooze with pessimism as it regards Ingenic Semiconductor, a Beijing supplier of its own MIPS-based mobile SoCs.
Armed with a homegrown MIPS CPU core, the Chinese fabless company, founded in 2005, flew under the radar until 2010, when it burst into the then-emerging tablet scene and went public in China. Despite initial success in e-books and tablets, Ingenic abandoned the tablet market in late 2012. Today, Ingenic is betting its life on the yet-to-be-defined smartwatch market.
As company founder and CEO Qiang Liu acknowledged in a recent conversation with EE Times, "Ingenic performed not well during the past several years... Profit decreased from $10 million three years ago to around $4 million last year."
Ingenic, back against the wall, rolled out a new platform last year for wearable devices and the Internet of Things, the Ingenic Newton Platform. At the platform's core sits Ingenic's 1 GHz MIPS-based JZ4775 CPU (a single-core MIPS CPU running at 1.0 GHz, manufactured by using a 65 nm process technology). Newton features flexible mobile connectivity options and various MEMS and biosensors.
Ingenic's all-out attack on the wearable/IoT market won't end there. Ingenic is grooming a new SOC, JZ4785, complete with its own MIPS version of big.LITTLE architecture. The new SoC, enabled with low-power voice recognition baked in, is expected out of the foundry by the end of May. It's designed for smartwatches, camera glasses, and other IoT devices, Liu told us.
In short, Liu and his team have not given up the impossible dream: MIPS in wearable devices, if not handsets and tablets. "The total 240 employees at Ingenic still insist on our belief to provide another computing platform other than ARM," said Liu.
Rise and fall
To call the rise and fall of Ingenic typical of the hundreds of boom-and-bust China fabless ventures is premature and misguided. Ingenic, more accurately, is an underdog story about a non-me-too apps processor company (a rarity in China) that's still pushing the envelope.
In a broader context, Ingenic could be a bellwether for the mobile and wearble future of MIPS technology, now owned by Imagination Technology.
Its MIPS-based processing core's low-power profile aside, Imagination's MIPS technology "will need to get adopted by a major chip supplier in order to have the best chance of breaking in," says Francis Sideco, senior director of Consumer, Mobile, and IT Electronics at IHS. While Ingenic is no household name in the West (but well known in China), the company undoubtedly holds the key to the future of MIPS in the mobile, wearable, and IoT world.
Then, there's the China factor. The world is waiting to see if China has the will (or stomach) to build a MIPS-based ecosystem robust enough to rival ARM. The keys are Chinese supercomputers (based on MIPS cores) and Ingenic. Although this is all still hypothesis, an industry official based in Beijing, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, asked EE Times last month, "What if China buys Imagination Technology?" The idea is that China, if it sees MIPS as the nation's crown jewel, might see Imagination as a vital investment. (See China to Blow $10B a Year on Chips.)
Meet Qiang Liu
Liu is by no means a typical boastful Chinese CEO. Calm and quiet, he talks earnestly, listens to others intently, and makes no predictions about what he doesn't know.
Ingenic CEO Qiang Liu at the company's entrance
In a recent meeting at Ingenic's Beijing headquarters, Liu said a lot of people in the industry and the investment community blame him for clinging to MIPS. "They say my decision to stay with MIPS is emotional."
Next page: MIPS is a "business decision"