The mobile SoC arms race: where are we heading?

MediaTek chip
MediaTek is fighting to make its own mark on the SoC arms race

Our appetite for smartphones and tablets has become insatiable and the mobile boom has perhaps become the defining feature of the technology industry over the past decade.

This has made the mobile semiconductor business one of the most profitable around, with manufacturers desperately vying to get inside the most famous smart devices.

Among the pack is the less-known SoC maker MediaTek, so we spoke to the company's VP and GM for Europe, Siegmund Redl, to get the low down on life in such a competitive market space.

TechRadar Pro: Why do you think there's a need for more cores when the OS and apps are not fully optimised for handling so many?

Siegmund Redl: Hardware is the enabler for software – in terms of evolution of this kind of technology, you always see the hardware coming first and then the software developers lean on it and exploit it; this will happen in Android as well, enabled by more cores, smoother and faster operation, higher performance and better user experience.

TRP: We're witnessing the equivalent of an arms race in mobile SoC with more of everything piled on (radio, cores etc). Is there a risk that the whole industry will plateau too quickly?

SR: Since the introduction of mobile telephony and then mobile data processing there has been tremendous development on all technology fronts. For the first time with 20nm, Moore's law will be broken, but only in the fact that cost is not adequately reduced as in previous iterations.

Other than that, I still do not see a plateau as there will always be new challenges the industry will be facing – and solving! For example, LTE-A with multiple band carrier aggregation, MIMO Antenna Technology, higher density and higher resolution display (at reasonable power consumption), and so forth.

TRP: Do you expect a commoditization of SoC to happen soon?

SR: The features and performance in SoC of today will be commoditized tomorrow, that has always been the case and that will continue in the future.

New feature challenges will lead to higher cost and complexity, and the industry will find a way to aggregate this in streamlined commoditized products. In fact, 2G and 3G features and smartphone chipsets for the mainstream markets can be considered a commodity today, available through a variety of chip vendors.

Adding new levels of complexity, however, may be challenging for some industry players, because investment into R&D is very high.

TRP: How important is 64-bit to Mediatek and the rest of the industry?

SR: 64-bit will find its place into mainstream mobile devices as it supports higher memory footprints and allows the re-use of software, which will be built (once) for a variety of (64-bit) devices like Workstation/PC, netbook/laptop/tablet PC, TV-set, and smartphones.

64-bit is the way to go for MediaTek and we were amongst the first in the industry to go down this path.

TRP: What is Mediatek doing to increase its presence in the market and become a more recognised brand?

SR: We have just re-launched the new MediaTek brand with the tagline "everyday genius". By that, we want to create the notion that everyone, everyday can achieve a special experience in using products that are based on MediaTek technology.

We are inclusive and enable everyone to participate in this connected world by making devices affordable. The brand building itself will be a process that we hope will find its way into the interested consumer who will connect MediaTek "everyday genius" with affordable, well performing devices and highly rewarding user experiences.

TRP: How many devices from the top 5 vendors can we expect to be powered by Mediatek by year's end?

SR: We have over 80 customers making smartphones based on our platforms and many of these companies represent international brands and some are found in the top 10 of smartphone makers. We have had approximately 1,500 smartphone projects to date (since 2010/2011), so expect a good selection coming up with the newly released and announced SoCs.

TRP: What will be your big focus in 2015? How will you evolve over the next 12 months?

SR: 2014 is the year when we start to deliver on LTE. 2015 will be the year where MediaTek will become mass volume provider of LTE SoC into the mainstream but also into the higher end.

Through LinkIt, you should see the first products and ideas materialize in the internet of things domain over the next 12 – 18 months.

TRP: What do you consider to be Mediatek's biggest threats and challenges?

SR: Keeping up with the pace of technical requirements from different and varying markets is always a challenge and sometimes you need to make bold decisions about what to do and what not to do.

So far, MediaTek has proven to be on the right track to get into a position from which we will help enable the next 3 billion users – 80% of which will be in the middle sweet spot, we call the "super-mid market" – and the plethora of connected devices to come.

TRP: How enthused, or not, are you about Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT?

SR: We are certainly watching the market developments in that direction as well – for the time being our chosen path for smartphone OS support, however, is Android.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.