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 supplier of its own MIPS-based mobile SoCs.
Armed with a homegrown MIPS CPU core, the Chinese fabless company, founded in 2005, flew under the radar until 2010, when it burst into the then-emerging tablet scene and went public in China. Despite initial success in e-books and tablets, Ingenic abandoned the tablet market in late 2012. Today, Ingenic 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 three years ago to around $4 million last year.”
Ingenic, back against the wall, rolled out a new platform last year for wearable devices and the Internet of Things, 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 biosensors.
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 wearble 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. (See China to Blow $10B a Year on Chips.)
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.”
Next page: 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.
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.
In addition to low cost, Ingenic designed the JZ4770 for low power as well. At 1.0GHz, the XBurst CPU uses 90mW. The entire processor consumes less than 300mW, according to the company. These figures should help mobile designers use smaller, lighter, and less expensive batteries.
In the same 2012 article, Gwennap was hopeful for Ingenic, citing “millions of dollars savings Ingenic made, compared with the cost of an ARM architecture license.” Gwennap was optimistic about MIPS in the Android market, noting “most Android apps are architecture-neutral and run on any instruction set.”
In the last couple of years, Ingenic has seemingly made the right moves to get MIPS accepted in the Android world. Ingenic snagged support for MIPS from Google on Android 4.1 in 2012. It also developed a binary translator for MIPS and opened it to Imagination Technologies.
But in the end, Gwennap's cautious 2012 analysis was prescient about MIPS's demise in the tablet market. Gwennap wrote, “One drawback of this processor for tablet use is its lack of compatibility with some Android apps. The MIPS architecture provides some technical advantages, but end users may not care about that if they can't run their favorite apps.”
When reached by EE Times for follow-up this week, Gwennap said, “The large number of apps available on ARM makes it difficult for any other architecture to succeed in smartphones or tablets…
“Consider that Intel has made little headway in mobile despite spending years optimizing its binary translator and also investing heavily in getting the leading apps ported natively to x86. The MIPS camp is well behind Intel in this type of investment.”
On to wearable devices
Since the company's single-core JZ4770 launched in 2011, Ingenic has continued to develop its XBurst-based JZ747XX series SoCs.
The Ingenic-designed XBurst CPU adopts a pipeline engine that can emit instructions with very little power, according to the company. Liu explained that the JZ747XX series has penetrated into e-dictionary, PMP, e-book, tablet, and wearable devices quickly. Since its inception of the series in 2007, Ingenic has shipped more than 30 million units.
Although Ingenic still holds some market share in the educational tablet market, the company has switched gears since 2012, setting its sights on the emerging market of wearable devices with Newton, a platform for the Internet of Things.
Industry analysts believe that despite Ingenic's withdrawal from the tablet segment, there's plenty of opportunity to pursue wearables.
Next page: Analysts’ views
The Linley Group's Gwennap told us, “Smart watches are still very new, and it's not clear how they will develop… One likely scenario is that most apps will run on the smartphone while driving content to the watch via Bluetooth.” Under such a scenario, “the watch needs to run only a small amount of software, so compatibility with ARM becomes much less important.
“For this type of watch, the processor must be simple and inexpensive, so Ingenic's technology should be applicable.”
IHS's Sideco agrees. “This relatively green field provides an opening for MIPS-based suppliers to break in,” he notes. “The smart watch market… doesn't have the same entrenched designs as the tablet market does (given that the latter is based on a lot of smartphone designs).”
The Ingenic Newton platform comes with flexible mobile connectivity including WiFi (802.11 a/b/g/n at 2.4/5 GHz) and Bluetooth 4.0 + EDR (including Bluetooth LE support), with support for NFC and FM. It also features various MEMS and bio sensors; 3-axis gyroscope; accelerometer and magnetometer; and pressure, humidity, temperature, and bio-signal detection and processing. The small board, 3.2 mm thick, measures 21.6 by 38.4 mm.
Imagination Technology's Alexandru Voica recently blogged about Ingenic Newton:
Ingenic Newton achieves very impressive power consumption figures under typical workloads: standby power is a measly 4mW, generic computing tasks (think MP3 playback) take up to 100mW on average while peak power consumption is around 260mW. This means that Ingenic-powered smartwatches can last for 30+ hours on a single charge.
Switching from Freescale to Ingenic
In China, where both system OEMs and consumers are eager for the emerging smartwatch market, the Ingenic Newton platform is gaining traction.
Beyond Geak Watch and Z Watch, ToMoon Technology, a leading smartwatch vendor, has joined the Newton party. In fact, ToMoon recently switched its hardware platform from Freescale to Ingenic, after the company sold its first batch of smartwatches over the Internet.
When this reporter visited Ingenic, a team of ToMoon engineers could be seen, closeted in a conference room with Ingenic's engineering staff.
Ingenic's foray into the IoT market goes beyond Newton. A new SOC, designated JZ4785, is in the hopper and expected back from the foundry in May.
Ingenic's new IoT platform and its new SoC will be instrumental if Ingenic survives. But the future for Ingenic and MIPS technology will require a big idea and long-term thinking.
In that regard, Liu is hopeful for a much tighter collaboration with Imagination. But even more imperative is a clear commitment by industry forces — other than Ingenic itself — to a computing platform other than ARM.
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times
This article was originally published on EBN's sister publication EE Times.