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


View All Comments

  • ganeshts - Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - link

    @Mike1111, Thanks for your inputs.

    When I mentioned that 'MOST' of the PA Semi engineers had moved on, I referred to the top brass consisting of PA Semi's CEO / CTO / COO etc. A quick Google search reveals that all these guys had indeed moved on to Agnilux. As for the rest of the PA Semi employees who stayed on at Apple, I am sure they are no different from any other Silicon Valley VLSI engineers that Apple could hire since Apple doesn't seem to be using any IP / specific knowhow of PA Semi in their products.

    As for GlobalFoundries, yes, Apple could always shift foundries, but the acquisition of Intrinsity lessens this probability, in my opinion. Considering that Intrinsity engineers are very familiar with the Samsung process, it would probably increase development time if they were to shift to another vendor. Note that Intrinsity's technology is closely tied to the process and foundry. So, it is unlikely that Apple would take the risk of schedule slip. Of course, this is just a conjecture, and stranger things have happened in the industry. If I have left off some specific angle which would make Apple shift foundry allegiance, please do let us know :) I am very open to corrections.
  • MySchizoBuddy - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Correction. Apple isn't using any PA.Semi specific IP "that we know off". Apple is too secretive to draw conclusion that PA.Semi was a lost acquisition. Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Well, this is the same thing that people were talking about when no Raycer Graphics products appeared under Apple's name even after 3 - 4 years of the acquisition.

    Many professional analysts ( and I am not one :) ) have long since beaten this to death, and I will put it down here again : "PA Semi's IP at acquisition time was a 25W ARM processor based chip. There is no product line that Apple currently has, which could be using this type of chip. If Apple indeed had planned on using PA Semi IP of some sort in any of their products, the best bet would have been in the iPad -- of which, rumors abounded towards the beginning of this year. This didn't turn out to be true. There has been no tangible benefit (except for engineering resources) to Apple from the PA Semi purchase yet -- even after 2 years of the acquisition"

    I don't find anything which would make me disagree with the analysts' conclusions.
  • Mike1111 - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    If Apple is sticking with Samsung, any information out there what's Samsung's LP roadmap for 28nm (if they do half-node) and 22nm/20nm looks like? I couldn't find anything concrete (only that 32nm and 28nm will be rolled out this year - is that HP(L) or LP, risk or volume?). GlobalFoundries seems to be on an aggressive schedule, as is TSMC (although their problems with 40nm make me skeptical that they can really deliver 20LP in volume production in the third quarter of 2013 as announced).

    As for PA Semi: If Apple is really trying to develop its own CPU core (like Scorpion), then it's no wonder that they weren't involved in the A4. A custom ARMv7 architecture won't find its way into products until 2012 at the earliest. 2012 would also be the year when I expect a dual-core Cortex-A9 (or similar custom architecture) to come to the iPhone, so that would fit (because I don't think dual-cores make much sense for smartphones before available in 32nm/28nm).
  • ganeshts - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Except for TSMC's public roadmap (which, in my opinion, is something to save face while their 40nm fiasco continues), foundries usually put their roadmaps under NDA. So, it is not surprising that we are unable to find out information about Samsung's plan beyond 28nm.

    GlobalFoundries looks aggressive and acts aggressive because they want to attract customers (Remember that they are starting out completely new!).

    @ Mike1111, Yes, I agree with you on PA Semi possibly working on ARMv7 architecture (assuming Apple does have the architecture license). This custom architecture could be further accelerated using Intrinsity's technology too. This is exactly what Tom Halfhill suggests in Microprocessor Report dated April 26th, 2010.

    Note that Qualcomm licensed ARMv7 in 2005, and it took them till 2009 end to start shipping products based on this. If one assumes PA Semi team started this in 2008, it would take them the timeframe that you mention to get designed into a working phone or tablet. However, loss of the top guys from PA Semi would have definitely pushed this behind schedule. As I noted in the article, Intrinsity tech, if applied to this custom architecture, is only bound to delay this further.

    Just look at how the A4 Hummingbird designed in 6 - 8 months by Intrinsity seems to be better than the Snapdragon Scorpion which took more than 4 years! When Apple comes out with their version, I am sure a stand alone processor from ARM itself (like the off-the-shelf Cortex-A9's successor) would have better performance; That way, I am not sure Apple would be taking full advantage of Intrinsity's tech.
  • Mike1111 - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the response!

    Regarding Samsung's foundry business: I couldn't even find detailed information on Samsung's 32nm and 28nm process, not just the stuff beyond 28nm. Is that information out there? I would be really interested in knowing when the 28LP volume production is scheduled to start. Early enough for the 2012 iPhone (AFAIK that would mean Q3/2011 or earlier)?

    Halfhill's Intrinsity article sounds good, but since I don't have a subscription I can't really access it. But in the part I could access he says that Intrinsity has already put more than 1 year into a Fast14 implementation of ARM’s Cortex-A9 dual-core processor. Interesting.
  • ganeshts - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Mike, an article appeared in ElectronicsWeekly just today:

    Summary from the above link: Looks like Samsung will offer 32, 28 and 22nm ; Q3 2010 is when 32nm volume production might start ; No hard dates provided for other nodes.
  • Mike1111 - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the link!

    Q3/2010 for 32LP volume production is very good. Just risk production or 32HP in Q3/2010 wouldn't have suprised me.
    That means that a 32nm SoC in 2011's iPhone could be theoretically possible. Although, going from 65nm to 32nm in 2 years in a smartphone sounds too good to be true. And if Apple wants to continue to use the same SoC in the iPhone (Q2/2010) as in the iPad (Q1), it gets even more unlikely.
  • Mike1111 - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Correction: And if Apple wants to continue to use the same SoC in the iPhone (Q2/2011) as in the iPad (Q1/2011), it gets even more unlikely. Reply
  • Mat3zz - Friday, April 30, 2010 - link

    This article seems to imply that ATI used Fast14 in their GPU's. I'm pretty sure they never did. When ATI released the R600 series in 2007, it was asked of Eric Demers in a Beyond3D interview about Fast14 and he made it clear it wasn't in their product. Radeons haven't increased in clock speed much since then. If ATI paid Intrinsity, it was probably for nothing. Where's my Ghz GPU!? Reply

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