Supply & Demand: April 2008 Archives

When former STMicroelectronics R&D director Jo Borel tried to convince the French government that it should try to convince Europe's three largest chipmakers to merge, he almost certainly didn't have in mind what ST and NXP Semiconductors plan to do. They are not merging the entire companies but taking the wireless business units and glueing them together.

The argument used for the merger is not all that dissimilar to Borel's: it's all about scale. Borel wanted Infineon, NXP and ST to team up to be big enough to build and operate a leading-edge fab - it is something that is only worth doing if you are selling billions of dollars' worth of chips every year out of that facility. Not able to do that on their own, the three companies expect to buy wafers made using the latest processors from foundries such as TSMC.

The availability of foundry-made silicon is one reason why Infineon chief Wolfgang Ziebart has said that there is not all that much point in trying to be big for the sake of being able to keep building fabs. His view is that companies will specialise and do whatever they can to be in the top three of their chosen market. Infineon has been bulking up in wireless recently, thanks to its purchase of a business unit that was only briefly part of LSI when that company bought Agere Systems.

The move by NXP and ST is on a larger scale, creating an as-yet unnamed joint venture that is comfortably in the top-three wireless silicon makers and around twice as big as the next largest supplier. According to iSuppli, that will be Infineon once the deal is done. The German company is at the head of a line of $500m to $1bn suppliers. The ranking switches a little if you look at it from the perspective of baseband processors - the single most important segment in cellular wireless silicon. ST lies at number three, NXP at five.