That process can be tough on the FPGA startups, which are long on claims but short on specifics. As private companies, they don't publish financial results. Some claim a number of design wins but say they are prevented by contractual obligations from divulging customer names.
And while analysts say they like what they hear from the group as a whole, they agree that it's very difficult to assess the companies' prospects for success, given the lack of concrete information.
"The bottom line is: Show me the money," said Bryan Lewis, an analyst at Gartner Inc.
Analysts like Lewis and Rich Wawrzyniak of Semico Research Corp. attribute the rise in programmable logic startup activity at least partially to the expiration of several key patents once held by the established players. Patents considered critical to the birth of FPGAs began expiring a few years ago. They include the original FPGA patent (U.S. Patent No. 4,870,302), issued to Xilinx co-founder Ross Freeman in 1988.
"Up until very recently, most patents were controlled by Xilinx and Altera. If you wanted to get into the market, you had to license the technology from them," Wawrzyniak said. "A lot of those seminal patents have expired or are about to expire."
But veterans of the programmable logic market disagree. The patent expirations, they say, have little, if anything, to do with the current crop of startups. Instead, they attribute the startup activity to a belief that the use of programmable logic is poised to grow at the expense of ASICs, for which design costs are on the rise. At a meeting in January, Xilinx president and CEO Moshe Gavrielov predicted that a combination of costs, market forces and technology drivers would result in FPGAs' displacing ASICs and application-specific standard products in all but very high-volume applications.
"Programmability is clearly the way forward in digital electronics," said Chris Balough, senior director of tools and software marketing at Altera. "If you are going to do something as a startup, almost by definition it's going to be a programmable product."