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Chipworks buys hundreds of devices every year and strips them down to look at the silicon that is in them. In some cases, they go much further, decap the chips, and work their way down the layers so that they know which process it is in, how many tracks the standard cell libraries use, whether it was laid out by hand, and so on. At the start of this year, they merged with TechInsights. The second-day keynote at the Linley Mobile and Wearables Conference had a keynote by Jim Morrison ("not the dead one" he said, referring to the lead singer of The Doors) called State of the Art in Smartphones and Wearables. Since January 2015, up until last week they have 400 smartphones and 75 watches and wearables.
One thing Jim emphasized is that there is a lot of silicon in a smartphone. It's not all about the application processor. A smartphone has 65 to 95 pieces of silicon inside. There are fewer components than this since often multiple dies are packaged together using TSV or other technologies. The die sizes range from 0.5mm square, up to 10mm by 9mm. They are built in everything from 14/16nm for the application processors, but a lot at 28nm ULP, FD-SOI, all the way to 0.25um for analog (and sometimes even larger).
Recent M&A activity has seen some of the larger players grab technology that they were missing. The most notable are:
One dynamic that Chipworks has found is that whoever wins the application processor (AP or APU) tends to win a lot of the other chips tht go alongside it, 25-40% of the other chips. Howver, the balance tends to be fought over by a large number of other companies, who are either the best (for high-end phones), or good enough and cheap (for the low end). The most valuable of the other chips are the touchscreen controller, the two cameras, the inertial and biometric sensors, the RF front end, and the antenna switch modules. These can be large markets. For example, Jim said that even though an antenna switch module is just 1mm square or so, it represents a $1B market.
Application processors are the big market since they involve such big areas of silicon. So big, that only a handful of foundries have the capability in both process and capacity to build them: TSMC, Samsung, GloFo, Intel, and UMC. But fabless dominates the landscape with Qualcomm, Apple, Mediatek, Spreadtrum, Huawei, and LG. Even Samsung's APU division effectively is fabless, using the Samsung foundry.
Right now, the Snapdragon 820 is the most dominant design that Chipworks has seen, with over 20 different design wins since just March of this year. And as already mentioned, it is very important to win the APU to win several of the other sockets. For example, in the recently released Samsung Galaxy S7 Active, Qualcomm also has many other parts (see the pie chart below). But clearly there is a "long tail" of other companies: Murata for WiFi, STM for touchscreen, NXP for NFC, Hynix for DRAM, Knowles for microphones.
Looking at wearables, Chipworks found that the earliiest ones in the 2014 era were built out of standard components that companies like Freescale, STM, or TI had in their portfolio for computing and communication functions. For example, the Nike fuel band has a pretty high component count as you can see just by a glance at the board. But that is now transitioning and the latest wearables are containing specialized SoCs from companies like Qualcomm, Dialog, STM, or Nordic. In fact, Dialog's 14581 was the chip in the fitness watch that I wrote about earlier this year.
This STMBlueNRG part, for instance, has an ARM microprocessor in the top left, flash memory in the bottom left, Bluetooth in the bottom right, and everything else in the top right. The chip is 2.6mm by 2.5mm.
New companies arrive on the scene all the time. For example, one of the leaders iin time-of-flight (ToF) sensors is ST. But the other is Heptagon, who I don't remember hearing of before. Jim's conclusion was that there is a lot of innovation being driven by mobile and wearables in process, design, and device types.
Next: Merger Mania
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