A shakeup of the digital signal processor playing field was promised this week by the creators of StarCore LLC, a new company that will ally three major chipmakers in the latest challenge to the leadership of Texas Instruments Inc.
The start-up is an evolution of the StarCore Joint Design Center, which was founded in 1998 by Lucent Technologies Inc.'s chip unit (now Agere Systems Inc.) and Motorola Inc. to jointly create DSP cores that would be developed into DSP chips marketed only by those two companies.
StarCore LLC will add a third partner-Infineon Technologies A.G.-and, in a significant change in strategy, will license its cores to all comers, not just to the three founders. TI, the largest DSP supplier, does not license its cores.
The new company hopes to accomplish with DSPs what ARM Ltd. has done with 32-bit embedded microprocessors, noted Ray Burgess, corporate vice president and director of strategy at Motorola's Semiconductor Pro ducts Sector (SPS) in Austin, Texas.
"The embedded-DSP market is ripe for that kind of standardization," Burgess said. "The majority of the DSP world is dominated by homespun customized architectures designed by equipment manufacturers to do a task because they couldn't get the right fit from a [standard] Motorola or TI part."
Burgess said that 60% to 70% of the DSP market currently fits that description. "There's a huge opportunity to license to those companies," saving them the time and cost of developing their own cores.
Creating a company independent of the three shareholders will make potential customers more comfortable licensing StarCore's technology, Burgess said. In the future, new shareholders may be added and an initial public stock offering may take place, he said.
Allowing open licensing will give the StarCore architecture a better chance to flourish in the market, Burgess said. "Back in the early '80s, the Motorola 68000 had a 74% share of the embedded 32-bit microprocessor mar ket, but we chose not to license it. The rest is history. Today, ARM has over half the industry with 77 licensees."
The new company's revenue will come from license fees, royalties, software tools, and design services. The physical implementation of the cores themselves will take place in Tel Aviv, Israel, where Infineon's Carmel DSP design team is based.
Infineon is expected to discontinue development of its Carmel DSP line to focus on the StarCore architecture.
Thomas Lantzsch, vice president and director of Intellectual Property Value Creation at SPS, has been named chief executive of StarCore in Austin.
Smaller companies threatened
Adding Infineon as a partner will give StarCore greater credibility, according to analyst Will Strauss of Forward Concepts Co., Tempe, Ariz. But the decision to license cores "represents a sea change" in its strategy, Strauss said. "This will cause some people to re-write their business plans."
Those most threatened will likely be a group cons isting of smaller companies that have attempted to license their DSP cores, Strauss said. These include names such as BOPS, Clarkspur, DSP Group, Improv Systems, Parthus, Siroyan Technology, and 3DSP, he noted.
Strauss said that while the programmable DSP market last year totaled $4.3 billion, the embedded DSP market StarCore is now targeting was almost twice as large, coming in at $8 billion.
LSI Logic Corp., Milpitas, Calif., has been licensing DSP cores since it acquired ZSP Corp. a few years ago, and has signed Conexant Systems Inc. and IBM Corp. as ZSP licensees, said Steve Brightfield, IP licensing manager.
StarCore LLC will probably cause a shakeout in the market, but LSI Logic will survive because it has already put a strong infrastructure in place to support customers, Brightfield said. "StarCore will have some growing pains. It's more than just offering cores for licensing. We like to say, 'It's the software, stupid.' "
LSI Logic has created a large network of third-party software p roviders to offer tool support to ZSP licensees, he said. A strong ASIC offering is also a key to success, according to Brightfield.
TI hasn't seen the need to license its DSP core technology, said Henry Wiechman, product line manager for its C6000 DSP line in Houston. "Typically, licensing comes up for a couple of reasons: having more than one source for the technology, and to optimize a solution to fit a given application requirement."
Wiechman also touted TI's portfolio of software and support tools. "StarCore doesn't have a large installed base to date, so they'll be developing a lot of code from scratch. That's a key challenge moving forward." He also argued that soaring costs of product development will discourage customers from creating their own DSP solutions.
Motorola's Burgess conceded that "StarCore is quite a new DSP architecture and it takes a while to build up a software support base. But one of the benefits of the open licensing model is that as more companies support StarCore, th e third-party-software industry will rally around it." That's what happened after ARM began signing licensees, he said.