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China’s quest for ‘MIPS in wearable’ By Junko Yoshida Let’s be blunt: Not many serious players in the electronics industry today are sanguine about the survival chances for MIPS processors in a global mobile market where in the last decade - almost single-handedly - ARM has built its formidable ecosystem. Against that backdrop, the industry can’t help but ooze with pessimism as it regards Ingenic Semiconductor, a Beijing-based supplier of its own MIPS-based mobile SoCs. Armed with a home-grown MIPS CPU core, the Chinese fabless company, founded in 2005, flew under the radar until 2010, when it first burst into the then emerging tablet scene and went public in China. Despite initial success in e-books and tablets, Ingenic ended up abandoning the tablet marketing in late 2012. Ingenic today is betting its life on the yet-to-be defined smartwatch market. As company founder and CEO Qiang Liu acknowledged in a recent conversation with EE Times, “Ingenic performed not well during the past several years... Profit decreased from $10 million Fig. 1: Ingenic CEO Qiang Liu at the company’s entrance. three years ago to around $4 million last year.” Ingenic, back against the wall, last year rolled out a new platform for wearable devices and Internet of Things, called the Ingenic Newton Platform. At the platform’s core sits Ingenic’s 1 GHz MIPS-based JZ4775 CPU (a single-core MIPS CPU running at 1.0 GHz, manufactured by using a 65 nm process technology). Newton features flexible mobile connectivity options and various MEMS and bio sensors. Ingenic’s all-out attack on the wearable/IoT market won’t end there. Ingenic is grooming a new SOC, JZ4785, complete with its own MIPS version of big.LITTLE architecture. The new SoC, enabled with low-power voice recognition baked in, is expected out of the foundry by the end of May. It’s designed for smartwatches, camera glasses, and other IoT devices, Liu told us. In short, Liu and his team have not given up the impossible dream: MIPS in wearable devices, if not handsets and tablets. “The total 240 employees at Ingenic still insist on our belief to provide another computing platform other than ARM,” said Liu. Rise and fall To call the rise and fall of Ingenic typical of the hundreds of boom-and-bust China fabless ventures is premature and misguided. Ingenic, more accurately, is an underdog story about a non-”me too” apps processor company (a rarity in China) that’s still pushing the envelope. In a broader context, Ingenic could be a bellwether for the mobile and wearable future of MIPS technology, now owned by Imagination Technology. Its MIPS-based processing core’s low-power profile aside, Imagination’s MIPS technology “will need to get adopted by a major chip supplier in order to have the best chance of breaking in,” says Francis Sideco, senior director of Consumer, Mobile, and IT Electronics at IHS. While Ingenic is no household name in the West (but well known in China), the company undoubtedly holds the key to the future of MIPS in the mobile, wearable, and IoT world. Then, there’s the China factor. The world is waiting to see if China has the will (or stomach) to build a MIPS-based ecosystem robust enough to rival ARM. The keys are Chinese supercomputers (based on MIPS cores) and Ingenic. Although this is all still hypothesis, an industry official based in Beijing, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, asked EE Times last month, “What if China buys Imagination Technology?” The idea is that China, if it sees MIPS as the nation’s crown jewel, might see Imagination as a vital investment. Meet Qiang Liu Liu is by no means a typical boastful Chinese CEO. Calm and quiet, he talks earnestly, listens to others intently, and makes no predictions about what he doesn’t know. In a recent meeting at Ingenic’s Beijing headquarters, Liu said a lot of people in the industry and the investment community blame him for clinging to MIPS. “They say my decision to stay with MIPS is emotional.” MIPS is a “business decision” Liu, however, is adamant that Ingenic’s choice of MIPS is a “business decision.” MIPS is what Ingenic teams know and how the company believes it can differentiate itself and its products from others. “We are doing MIPS because we want to stay original,” Liu told EE Times in Beijing. Significantly, Ingenic is unlike most China fabless companies, which design mobile apps processors by cobbling together various IP blocks licensed from elsewhere. Ingenic’s team was working on MIPS CPU designs well before the company purchased licenses for MIPS architecture instruction sets in 2009. Liu noted, “We have a MIPS architecture license, we design our own processor cores and multimedia elements that go into SoCs on our own.” As for 3D graphics, Ingenic licensed it from Vivante, and more recently PowerVR from Imagination. Fig. 2: Ingenic’s MIPS-powered tablet in the educational market. What killed MIPS in mobile In April 2012, Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at The Linley Group, wrote a piece entitled “Stranger in an ARM World,” discussing the Ingenic-designed MIPS CPU for the JZ4770 mobile processor: Ingenic designed its own CPU, called XBurst. Implementing the MIPS32 (release 2) instruction set, this CPU uses a simple scalar design. In 65nm LP, it operates at 1.0GHz (1.2GHz at overvoltage). The single-core JZ4770 should have performance similar to that of single-core Cortex-A5 processors running at the same speed. Junko Yoshida is Chief International Correspondent at EE Times – www.eetimes.com 20 Electronic Engineering Times Europe May 2014 www.electronics-eetimes.com


EETE MAY 2014
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