I have been working for some time on a report about mobile connectivity chips. This is an interesting market, one that is so hot that it is actually going to continue to grow in 2009 as the overall cell phone market declines by 10%.
The term “connectivity” denotes all the radios in a cell phone that are not cellular radios. There are a lot of them. The main ones are Bluetooth, FM radio, GPS and Wi-Fi. Others beginning to appear in handsets are TV and NFC. Further out in time are 60 GHz and White Spaces radios.
The cell phone market deals in massive volumes – about 1.2 billion handsets were sold in 2008. It also has some stringent requirements. The market demands chips that are small, cheap, battery-life conserving and easy to design-in. These considerations have driven chip vendors to combine multiple connectivity radios onto single chips. The first combo chips were Bluetooth plus FM. Then came Bluetooth plus FM plus Wi-Fi then most recently Bluetooth plus FM plus GPS.
Because the market is so big, the competition is intense. The 2008 leaders in Bluetooth were Broadcom and CSR; in Wi-Fi TI, ST-Ericsson and Marvell; in GPS TI and Infineon; and in FM ST-Ericsson and Silicon Labs.
These vendors are leap-frogging each other on performance and features. 2009 will see major changes in market share as some vendors fail to refresh their old product lines, others refresh their product lines but with inadequate products, and new entrants come in with better solutions.
CSR released its 2Q08 results today. Quarterly revenues are 13% down year on year ($188.4m vs. $215.9m), but in line with expectations and up 17% on Q1. The CEO blamed the decline on “macro economic pressures.”
The press release says that CSR has completed “repositioning the business around the Connectivity Centre.”
What CSR calls the “Connectivity Centre” was the topic of a report I wrote with the Linley Group last year and which we are in the process of updating for 2008. The idea of the connectivity chip is that cell phones have a multiplicity of radios in them these days: several cellular standards and frequencies, Bluetooth, FM radio, GPS, Wi-Fi and some other minor ones. The way it has shaken out so far is that cell phone OEMs have implemented each of the non-cellular radios separately on their phone motherboards, or with two or more of them mounted together on a multi-chip module, or “connectivity chip.” Recently many vendors have started doing single-die implementations of connectivity chips, like Bluetooth plus FM, or Bluetooth plus Wi-Fi.
CSR with its BlueCore 7 is the first to combine Bluetooth (plus Bluetooth LE, formerly Wibree), FM (transmit and receive) and GPS on a single chip. This looks like a winning combination, because these three technologies are the ones with the highest attach rates to cell phones, and CSR has managed to implement the GPS with a sufficiently modest silicon footprint that CSR doesn’t charge for it if the OEM doesn’t want to use it.
Also mentioned in CSR’s results release is the news that the low-power Wi-Fi chip that CSR announced in 2004, the UniFi 2, is finally shipping in phones: “our embedded Wi-Fi product will be shipping in six smart phones by the end of the current quarter.” Actually, one of their analyst presentations appears to indicate that it is already shipping in the Mio A702.
CSR says it is “the only â€˜pure playâ€™ connectivity company.” This is passably true, but each of the major cellular baseband companies except Freescale now has, or is in the process of putting together a suite of connectivity products. CSR also says it “is moving fast to create and lead this market.” It will have to move fast. Qualcomm has already swept multiple connectivity technologies into its latest cellular baseband offering. This is the likely end-game for all the cellular baseband vendors. The questions are: is this what the handset OEMs want, and if so, how long will it take?