ST-Ericsson is rumoured to be looking for a buyer, but could its ARM product range survive an acquisition by Intel?
Semiconductor giant ST-Ericsson, a joint venture between mobile specialist Ericsson and STMicroelectronics, is ripe for a takeover - and fingers are pointing at AMD, Intel and Nvidia as the most likely candidates.
ST-Ericsson was formed as a joint venture between the two companies back in 2009, and while fabless its communications chipsets have found their way into a huge number of devices throughout the world.
Recently, however, the company has been shifting its target market: while it still makes the majority of its profits from communications hardware, ST-Ericsson has been using an ARM licence to produce a system-on-chip design known as NovaThor. Combining communications hardware, high-performance Mali 400 graphics processing, and single- or dual-core Cortex-A9 central processing units, NovaThor is proving popular with handset makers as an alternative to similar highly-integrated chips from the likes of Qualcomm.
ST-Ericsson itself, however, is undergoing a period of restructuring. While the company is quiet on the exact reasons, the Reuters
news agency claims that sources are pointing to an impending acquisition that will see the joint venture snapped up by one of the bigger players in the industry.
Officially, nobody's talking. Unofficially, the unnamed sources point to AMD, Nvidia, Intel and Texas Instruments as potential buyers for ST-Ericsson.
Nvidia and Texas Instruments are both obvious choices. Both are in competition with ST-Ericsson for the mobile market, Nvidia with its Tegra family and TI with its OMAP family, and could benefit from the increased integration that ST-Ericsson has to offer from its wireless business. Heavy integration - where communications, processing, and peripheral functionality are all combined onto a single chip to save space and power - is a key offering of Qualcomm, and an ST-Ericsson buy would help either company break into new markets.
AMD is another name that shouldn't surprise. AMD's Sasa Marinkovic told us back in May last year that it couldn't rule out the possibility of making ARM processors
, while more recently AMD's chief technology officer Mark Papermaster dropped some heavy hints about an AMD-ARM deal
which would see the company adding low-power Cortex-based products to its accelerated processing unit (APU) line-up.
Intel, however, is a wild-card entry. It's true the company has previous form: following a lawsuit between Intel and Digital, the chip giant acquired an ARM licence which it used to produce StrongARM chips and the later XScale family. Intel left the ARM game back in 2006, however, selling its licence to Marvell and concentrating on x86 and Intel Architecture chips.
More recently, the company has been aggressively targeting ARM with low-power Atom options. In January's Consumer Electronics Show, the company unveiled the Atom Z2460 system-on-chip design
which offers a serious x86 alternative to smartphone makers bored of the ARM architecture.
If Intel were to purchase ST-Ericsson, it seems unlikely it would be doing so for its ARM know-how. Rather, such an acquisition would likely see the ARM product lines terminated in favour of highly-integrated system-on-chip designs combining ST-Ericsson's wireless communications products with Intel's Atom processing family.
So far, none of the companies named by Reuters' sources have come forward to confirm or deny the rumour. Should ST-Ericsson get picked up by one of the named parties, however, expect the low-power SoC market to get a serious shake-up.