The Rest of the Industry

What repercussions does this acquisition have for the rest of industry? It is still not clear whether Intrinsity would continue to support any of their existing customers (AMD/ATI and AMCC -- whether they are still using FastCore technology is not known). However, we can safely say that the FastCore version of the Cortex-A8 on Samsung's 45nm node is the final Intrinsity product available for other fabless semiconductor companies to license. This hardened macro (called as the Hummingbird) has found a place in some of Samsung's app processors, but we are not aware of any other licensees for this.

Of all the companies involved, it appears that Samsung's app processor division would suffer the most in this transaction. It is quite possible that they were counting on a FastCore version of the Cortex-A9 at the 32nm node for their next generation product in the S5PC line. The online rumour mill suggests that Intrinsity had already been working on a FastCore version of Cortex-A9, but it is not clear whether it was Samsung who had requested it (most likely). The status of this FastCore after Apple's acquisition remains unclear.

While Samsung's app processor division could end up unhappy, things continue to bode well for Samsung's foundry business. Apple was never likely to move away from them for future members of the A4 product line, but Intrinsity's acquisition and their previous experience with Samsung's process flow only continue to strengthen this belief.

Intrinsity's technology, back in 2001, was probably a bit ahead of its time. Undoubtedly, their most outstanding success to date seems to be the Hummingbird core in the 45nm node, showing how their technology has matured and delivered outstanding results for a company of Apple's stature to use in their own products. Unfortunately, for the rest of the industry, the technology has been rendered no longer licensable. With the relevant patents now belonging to Apple, it is unlikely that other companies can benefit from Fast14 technology of any form in their own product lines. The pity is that these may be product lines such as the embedded PowerPC market for control and telecom applications (this is where AMCC's Titan core designed with help from Intrinsity's FastCore technology is used) where Apple has no presence. Hopefully, the industry would continue to innovate and get past the loss of this promising technology.

Final Words

In closing, it can be said that there are no outright winners in the asset acquisition. While Intrinsity's investors may have just about broken even or may have even had to get out with a big loss, Apple has its hands full in trying to get some returns for the investment in their third semiconductor company acquisition. In particular, considering the fact that they don't seem to have had much success with the first two, it will be interesting to watch how Apple's management style works in a small fabless semiconductor company. The nature of Intrinsity's technology also doesn't seem very amenable to the fastest-time-to-market nature of the application processor market, and this only makes Apple's task that much more difficult. Current licensees of Intrinsity's technology and the Samsung application processor group (particularly if the rumors of Intrinsity's current activities with respect to the Cortex-A9 turn out to be true) seem to be left in limbo. The industry, in general, has lost the ability to take advantage of a technology whose time seemed to have just arrived.

Note: We are grateful to Tom Halfhill for his invaluable inputs to this story. If you require a professional analysis of the acquisition, please check out his piece "Why Apple Wants Intrinsity" in the April 26th, 2010 issue of Microprocessor Report.
 

Apple and Intrinsity's Perspective
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  • jeffrey - Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - link

    Articles like this are outstanding. Articles providing insight into the semiconductor industry players always seem to be my favorite. Visits to Nvidia's offices, graphics architecture chats with AMD/ATI, and Intrinsity's acquisition are very much appreciated.

    I will now go click on some ads as a reward!
    Reply
  • deputc26 - Sunday, May 02, 2010 - link

    So now we know what the "A4" is. A "fastmathed" A8, but on what node? I've heard both 45 nm and 65nm... Reply
  • ganeshts - Sunday, May 02, 2010 - link

    It is most definitely 45nm! I think ChipWorks already has the A4 decapped (XRayed and compared with a Xilinx 45nm chip) to confirm that. Reply
  • greylica - Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - link

    Its' very interesting that the industry change it's own about performance. Now, we are in the times of ''performance per watt'' , but it seems that the progress in microprocessor architeture is making the industry and the consumer loose it's way to understand what is REAL performance. Proprietary Instruction set optimizations, and performance diferences between processors that use the same Instruction set are getting to a point that we all start to get confused. BUMP.... Reply
  • dagamer34 - Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - link

    Anand, this part doesn't make much sense: "On the other hand, if the aim was to prevent the competition from getting access to this technology, it may succeed to quite an extent."

    Just about everyone is already working on Cortex A9 designs, with most of them shipping this year. Playing keep away with souped up A8 technology is nice, but I doubt anyone would really bother with it now that nVidia is offering it's Tegra 2 series of chips for OEMs to use by the end of the year.
    Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - link

    I believe they are referring to the domino logic technology which will in theory allow future Apple versions of the ARM Cortex A9 to scale to higher clock speeds and be faster than regular reference ARM Cortex A9 designs. Reply
  • ganeshts - Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - link

    dagamer34, Thanks for your observation. Maybe, the context wasn't clear in the article.

    My intent was to suggest that Apple might not want other companies like TI / Nvidia / Broadcom etc. to be able to utilize Intrinsity's Fast14 technology (not Cortex-A8s or Cortex-A9s in general).

    Fast14 could potentially speed up the implementations of the core CPU in app processors which could be seen as a competition to Apple's own A4 lineup. (if the companies desigining them were to license the FastCore versions)
    Reply
  • faydrus - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Does domino logic really matter anyway? The Intel Nehalem processor is pure static CMOS, no more domino logic there. If a high performance processor has no use for domino logic, why would an embedded processor want it? Reply
  • metafor - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    That doesn't necessarily mean domino logic isn't useful anymore. Nehalem had simply gotten to a point of complexity where hand-designing domino circuits (especially since they moved to an internal IP-based chip assembly flow) was too cumbersome considering the benefits (and I suspect their 32nm node was a bit too variable).

    In much smaller processors like the A9, it could indeed benefit. Now, there are significant trade-offs to domino logic -- area and power will suffer -- but if strategically used, it can definitely give a competitive edge in A9 class processors.

    That's not to say Apple isn't micro-architecting their own ARM processor anyway. They aren't hiring a bunch of chip micro-architects for no reason :)
    Reply
  • Mike1111 - Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - link

    I only heard that some of PA Semi's engineers left Apple, what's the source for "MOST of the PA Semi engineers have since moved on"? And I wouldn't be a 100% sure that Apple is gonna stick with Samsung for 32nm/28nm, GlobalFoundries would be a good alternative. Reply

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