Fresh off the purchase of MIPS, Imagination thinks they can steal a quarter of the reference design market away from ARM. How? By playing to its strength of support for heterogeneous computing.

Space Warrior 1024x576 Imagination makes a warrior out of MIPS

In today’s mobile world, the dominant instruction set is ARM. Regardless of whether Apple or Samsung claims hegemony of the smartphone and mobile computing space, ARM will always be the victor. Snapdragon, Tegra, A-Series, Exynos; they all run on a variation of ARM’s intellectual property.

ARM has always had success in this market because it takes a hands-off approach. It’s not a manufacturer, only a licenser, allowing manufacturers to tweak its chips to meet individual and specific applications. In contrast, Intel, which is also trying to make a name for itself in the mobile market, has a more off-the-shelf, turn-key approach. This approach might have its strengths down the road, but it hasn’t put much of a dent in ARM’s empire as manufacturers prefer a tweakable product to something uniform.

In addition, ARM-licensed chips can always undercut Intel in the price game because of the need for Intel to maintain high margins. Wall Street expects Intel to keep its gross margins in the high-50s (it had slipped to 56.2 percent from 64 a year before) meaning that a price disparity will always exist between Intel and its ARM competitors. That puts Intel in an uncompetitive position, and unable to truly challenge ARM’s dominance in the market.

Enter Imagination Technologies. The relatively unknown company scooped up a company called MIPS Technologies, finalizing the deal in early February for $100 million. While Imagination is probably not known to the average consumer, it has a vast IP library and nearly two-and-a-half decades of experience in the microprocessor and graphics game (PowerVR). ARM is the name of the game for mobile processing, but Imagination is what drives the graphics of nearly every leading mobile platform.  MIPS, also a relative unknown to consumers, has been around since the 80s building RISC (the same instruction set type as ARM) chips for everything from Silicon Graphics workstations, networking routers to the Playstation Vita.

Imagination is planning on taking on the leviathan of ARM with its new MIPS powered Warrior CPU due out later this year. When the chip was announced earlier this week, press materials promised innovation through “best-in-class performance and efficiency” making it a game changer for the CPU IP landscape.

“At the end of the day, what drives innovation in the mobile industry is a good deal of competition,” Amit Rohatgi, VP of Segment Marketing at Imagination, said to VR-Zone. “I can’t imagine Intel being where Intel is today if AMD didn’t exist.”

“Innovation really comes about in almost any industry. The reason the industry needs MIPS is to ensure that the competition ensures the industry will innovate, “ he continued.

While the competition is tough, there market does have a built in equalizer insofar that Android supports MIPS as natively as it does ARM or x86.

A new outlook on life

MIPS isn’t a new architecture, but has been meddling in obscurity for most of the late 90s and early 2000s not enjoying the same commercial success as ARM.

Rohatgi attributes this to lack of proper future planning.

“I think where MIPS, independently, may have suffered a bit in the past was the lack of a robust roadmap. It wasn’t robust enough and the competition, as formidable as they are, developed a solid roadmap,” he said.

Rohatgi explains that the roadmap Imagination has created for MIPS includes putting the chip into a variety of different ecosystems in order to hit the 25 percent of total reference designs target. He says that Imagination is planning to try and push it into things like set top boxes, networking devices, aircraft entertainment systems and other parts of the Internet of Things.

The heterogeneous advantage

As Imagination was one of the founding members of the Heterogeneous Software Alliance, Rohatgi says his company will use this to their advantage with MIPS.

“We are happy to marry a MIPS CPU with a (ARM’s) Mali GPU, in fact we have customers that do that today. Or vice versa. Or an ARM CPU with Power VR which is a very common configuration,” he said. “We’re already in that mode of not dictating. I think this is where Imagination’s strength is, in its wide breadth of IP which we are trying to make heterogeneous by founding the HSA foundation and making sure that these IP pieces can talk to each other regardless of company.”

This approach extends to their fab process.

“We are process agnostic,” David Harold, a communications director at Imagination said to VR-Zone. “Our customers can, and do, fab in a number of places with our IP.”

As Imagination does have a substantial library of GPU IP, they aren’t going to push too much heterogeneity to push their own hardware out of sight. The company has said before that it would be open to offering GPU licensees discounts on its MIPS CPUs, as Forbes reports.

What can stop the warrior?

MIPS has a lot of momentum behind it, but it also has an uphill battle in the mobile sector. It’s biggest threat to entry right now is going to be the emerging giant of MediaTek.

At this year’s Computex MediaTek was everywhere. The once unknown Chinese chipmaker came in with a splash this year, and every vendor seemed to have a low-cost tablet powered by a MediaTek chip.

At the same time, in some circumstances MediaTek has a fruitful business relationship with Imagination. MediaTek uses Imagination IP for its connectivity chips and licenses its PowerVR graphics technology. But at the same time, the two companies will be going head-to-head as MIPS tries to take on ARM in the mobile processor space.

The low-cost tablets MIPS has powered have been largely successful, like the $125 Smart Tab 1 geared for consumers in India. Growth will be in getting mobile devices to the next billion customers in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, a market that MIPS now has to share with the up and coming threat of MediaTek.

But the important thing that MIPS bring to the market is not that it particularly excels in one particular sector, but rather it provides competition in the ecosystem.

ARM is no longer alone. MIPS chips can be fast or slow depending on the client’s requirements, but as a benchmark at Mobile World Congress demonstrated, they can match ARM in speed and have an edge over it in battery life.

Imagination CEO Sir Hossein Yassaie likens the ARM-MIPS battle that of Pepsi and Coke.

“One example I often use is that the industry needs MIPS as much as MIPS needs the industry, because no industry can operate in an environment where it is a near-monopoly,” he is quoted in Engadget as saying.

“I often say on this subject that wherever there is a Coke, there will be Pepsi. And MIPS is here to make sure that there is a Pepsi.”