MIPS targets Arm, Intel in smartphone, tablet markets

MIPS wants its processor architectures to be used in fast-growing smartphone and tablet platforms

MIPS Technologies this week said it will put its processor architecture in tablets and smartphones as it prepares to duel rivals Arm and Intel in those fast-growing markets.

The growing demand for smartphones and tablets has opened up a new market for the company's processor architectures, which have been used in servers, netbooks, set-top boxes and mobile Internet devices in the past, said Art Swift, vice president of marketing at MIPS Technologies.

"Arm's had a virtual monopoly in the mobile-phone space for a decade," said Swift, who previously was CEO at Transmeta. "The people who are there would love to see more competition. It's an unstable situation."

The company was kept from the smartphone market partly because operating systems such as Nokia's Symbian did not support the MIPS architecture, Swift said. But Google's Android OS is fully compatible with MIPS, opening up new market opportunities.

"Android makes that a lot easier because of the processor-neutral environment it is based on," Swift said.

In September, MIPS released the MIPS32 1074K family of application processors, which it hopes to push into mobile devices. A few mobile system-on-chip makers have licensed MIPS-based designs, and handsets could reach market in the first half of next year, Swift said.

The 1074K is scalable up to 1.5GHz and is capable of multithreading, which the company claims will give it a leg up on Arm processors, which do not implement multithreading.

MIPS Technologies is primarily known for its embedded processors, and it has a strong presence in segments such as networking and wireless communications. The company's processors are also used in television sets, Blu-ray players, set-top boxes and handheld gaming devices. Like Arm, the company licenses its processor designs to chip makers.

The company also has a small presence in the netbook space. A netbook sold in China called Lemote uses a chip based on a MIPS design. The Institute of Computing Technology, a government-backed agency in China, is also building a supercomputer called the Dawning 6000 with server chips based on MIPS architecture.

It will be a challenge for MIPS to take market share from Arm, whose chips go into most smartphones today, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. MIPS will also have to contend with Intel, which is trying to push its Atom processor into tablets and smartphones.

"Intel's strong in PCs, Arm is strong in mobile, and MIPS says they own the living room. Now everyone wants to get in each other's turf," Brookwood said.

Just because Android runs on MIPS doesn't put it at parity with Arm, Brookwood said. Google's Android development is done on the Arm platform, and companies with other chip architectures usually have to take the new release and convert it.

"They are always a little bit behind what the Arm guys can do," Brookwood said.

But MIPS may hold an advantage over Intel through its licensing model, which provides chip makers flexibility to build custom chips. Intel, on the other hand, has its own factories, and a stranglehold over integration of cores and other elements inside a chip.

MIPS has a solid presence in the embedded processor space, so entering the smartphone and tablet markets is a natural extension, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Unit shipments are exploding in the smartphone and tablet markets, and for MIPS, those are low-hanging fruit.

"Where the mobile and smartphone market is right now was more like the PC industry in the late '80s and '90s," McCarron said.

A number of architectures -- including Apple's early Motorola 68000 and Intel's x86 -- were competing to be at the core of PCs at that time. Similarly, a number of architectures are gunning for mobile devices right now.

"That's why you are seeing so much effort put forth by such companies," McCarron said. "If you get your technology entrenched, you will be reaping rewards for years."

The company's success ultimately hinges on power consumption, performance, pricing and software support, McCarron said.

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