present decade represents a period of strategic inflection in the
evolution of the semiconductor industry – the next five years are likely
to see a confluence of several technology and market forces which will
collectively have a profound impact on the course of the industry. These
trajectories are discussed below.
Ascendance of the SoC Functional integration is expected to continue
making the SoC far more sophisticated and powerful. It will also evolve
to consume less power and shrink in size as it moves from 40nm
lithography to advanced geometries. Qualcomm, NVIDIA and Apple have
demonstrated solid performance gains over successive iterations of their
flagship SoCs (Snapdragon, Tegra and AX). There is likely to be fierce
competition among these players as each tries to incorporate more
functionality into their chips and win designs for new mobile products.
The ascendance of the SoC will force disruptive changes to the
traditional IDM cost structure and business model.
Ascendance of the GPU Usage models of the tablet and the smartphone
indicate that the GPU is the most heavily used block within SoCs like
the Tegra, Snapdragon and the A5X. Since the GPU is the largest block
and also consumes most of the power on the chip, it is instructive that
the silicon transistor be designed to optimize the performance and power
of the GPU. It is likely that design houses and foundries will make the
GPU the centerpiece for transistor design and manufacturing –
historically all the blocks including the GPU had to adapt a transistor
that had primarily been designed for the CPU. The rapid evolution of the
SoC and the increasing role of the GPU are evident in Figure 2 which
shows three successive generations of Apple A- family processors which
were released within a two year period. The GPU on the latest A5X
processor occupies almost half the die area.
Click on image to enlarge.
2 In just two years, the GPU on Apple SoCs has dramatically increased
in size, consuming half the area on the latest chip. Similar trends can
be observed in the Snapdragon (QCOM) and Tegra (NVDA) family of
processors (Source: Chipworks).
Diminishing returns from transistor scaling As the law of diminishing
returns eventually catches up with Moore’s Law, there will be little
economic incentive to scale transistor feature size. Companies at the
leading edge of Moore’s Law may be able to compete effectively in high
margin segments (servers and data centers) but will find it difficult to
price their parts competitively for the low margin consumer markets.
Design houses may find it more economical to scale orthogonally instead
(e.g. adding more functionality and lower power per layer with 2.5D and
life-cycles Tablet and smartphone offerings are refreshed once every
year – much faster than the historical PC refresh cycle. The
semiconductor industry will need to adjust its technology development
lifecycle to keep pace with the mobile product lifecycle. It is not
feasible to scale-down transistor geometry every year – however it is
quite feasible to rapidly incorporate increasing levels of functional
integration into an existing geometry.
Dropping ASPs of mobile consumer products Already one is seeing the
beginnings of a price war within the mobile space as companies like
Google and Samsung offer tablets at half the price of the iPad. But as
fabless vendors start competing from below for the high-end laptop and
ultrabook markets, they will put significant pricing pressure on
incumbents like Intel to price their parts competitively.
Growth in mobile SoC shipments Gartner predicts that total smartphone
and tablet volumes may exceed 500 million units by 2015. At this rate,
mobile SoC shipments will dwarf CPU shipments within the next few years.
The confluence of all of these vectors over the next 5 years is
likely to put SoC technology at the heart of the semiconductor
industry. Chip companies like Apple, Qualcomm, NVIDIA and Samsung are
well positioned for this scenario and are likely to keep enhancing the
functionality of their respective offerings. Design IP providers like
ARM and Imagination Technologies are poised to benefit immensely as
well. Foundries are well positioned to capitalize on this trend and will
benefit from refocusing their efforts on transistor design in a way
that is GPU-centric rather than being CPU-centric. Intel will continue
to face increasing pressures to compete in the mobile market and Intel’s
product mix may reflect a move toward more on-chip functional
integration in the years to come. More importantly, Intel will be forced
to also compete with SoC technology in the ultrabook and PC segments
and doing so may necessitate a change not only in its technology
direction but also in its business model.
If these trends
continue, there is no reason why a SoC chip cannot displace a standalone
CPU chip in a high-end laptop. The boundaries between the standalone
CPU and the SoC are thus likely to erode in the years to come as the
industry embraces and unleashes the full disruptive potential of the
All names and brands are the property of their respective owner.
Andrew S. Grove, Academy of Management, Annual Meeting, Aug 9 1998,
director of process integration at SuVolta. Prior to joining SuVolta in
2010, Ranade was with Intel Corp. where he contributed to transistor
process integration and development of Intel’s 65-, 45- and 22-nm logic
technology. Ranade joined Intel in 2003 after graduating with a Ph.D.
from the University of California, Berkeley. At Berkeley, his research
was in the area of sub-70nm CMOS transistor design and involved the
integration of novel gate materials and ultra-shallow junctions. Ranade
has authored or co-authored over 40 technical publications and holds 9