Who wants a roll-your-own Atom SoC?


In the Twitter conversation that followed the deal between Intel and TSMC, in which the number-one chipmaker will let a foundry make some system-on-chip (SoC) parts for favoured customers, I made the rash prediction that Intel would probably not allow a customer to resell the parts it designed, or at least not OK a deal where that was likely to happen.

There was nothing made public to back that up, other than Sean Maloney, executive vice president of sales and marketing, mentioning several times that Intel would remain the company in charge of deciding who can build an SoC around an Atom core.

Intel wants to break into some markets that it cannot get at because some customers do not want the standard silicon that Intel makes or they do not want Intel to make a part to their specification.

However, Intel is not going to break into a market at any cost. CEO Paul Otellini has already taken a pasting over Atom cannibalising sales of its mainstream PC processors. Can you see him being eager to get it in the neck from the analysts a second time around, accusing him of letting other chipmakers cannibalise Intel's direct Atom sales?

Conversely, who'd want to drum up sales for Atom-based products in the knowledge that Intel can take the ball away just as you get successful and go for the second generation.

Let's take one of the most obvious candidates for licensing an x86 core for use in portables: nVidia. OK, you can stop laughing at the back. It would be a funny move to make when you are fighting in the courts just to bolt a coprocessor onto the side of Intel's Nehalem. But nVidia is a big customer of TSMC, could easily wrap a GPU and chipset around an Atom and has signalled its intention to do something similar through a tie-up with Via, although that has gone a bit cold recently.

But nVidia is telling anybody who cares that the CPU is turning into an appendage – it's the GPU that has all the horsepower. I can construct in my head a byzantine scenario where Intel sues nVidia to get the GPU maker's tanks off its lawn so it can tie up a deal around Atom that boxes in nVidia, but it's not pretty. If you wanted something to cannibalise Atoms in netbooks, the device would be similar to something nVidia would like to make.

What about one of the handset silicon suppliers, like Qualcomm? Intel has been banging its head against the wall trying to do something in handsets for years. Qualcomm's engineers could cheerfully slide an Atom alongside an ARM baseband processor for a Windows-running smartphone. But it might be too good at it and we're talking about a company that loves its lawyers.

ST-NXP is a possible alternative to Qualcomm in handsets. ST is a company that is good at doing deals and has managed to work with Intel in the past, notably through the Numonyx mash-up. If I thought Intel wanted to do a deal to get into handsets, ST-NXP would be my choice. Texas Instruments doesn't want to play anymore in baseband and its applications processors compete head-on with Atom. Freescale and Infineon have problems of their own right now and Broadcom is not a major player in a business that demands bulk.

However, an Atom with a 3G baseband bolted to the side would be pretty attractive in a netbook. Oh dear, we're back on Intel's core market for Atom. Do I hear the C-word again?

Industrial and automotive provide some opportunities for a company out of Intel's sphere to get involved. But it's hard to picture a situation where the volumes justify doing a special Atom versus buying the standard product and sticking it alongside a custom I/O device.

So, I keep coming back to the systems houses. And not many of those are really in the running to do a 40nm, 32nm or 28nm chip just to get PC compatibility. Right now, only two names come to mind. One is Apple, inevitably. The other is Cisco. Both have extensive experience in designing their own silicon. Cisco, in particular, has run a fair number of chips through TSMC.

Apple? Let the netbook speculation resume. Intel offering Steve Jobs the opportunity to build a custom SoC might be the carrot to stop Apple from using the ARM Cortex-A9 as the guts for a souped-up-iPhone take on the netbook. However, the more you look at how much control Apple wants over its new markets, such as phones, the company is better off just sticking with the ARM infrastructure. A netbook that is incompatible with a MacBook will cannibalise Apple's computer business less than one that is modelled after an Asus Eee.

Cisco looks a bit more promising. The company keeps making noises about getting into consumer electronics, although the results have been less than dazzling. An Atom-based home gateway or home-tablet thingy are the kinds of products I can imaging Cisco wanting to make.

There are other consumer-market players I could list. Sony, for example. But it's hard to think of companies who are desperate for x86-compatibility outside of those who have proven, over the years, to be happy with the standard silicon – I'm looking at you Dell and HP.