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  • STMicroelectronics and SoCs

    What does system on chip (SoC) actually mean? How this tech moniker came into being? There is quite a bit of enigma about SoC in the technology press and what this term really stands for. Roger Shepherd, consultant at Parallel Computer Systems, shares on Quora his version of the SoC story. He says that he first heard about SoCs when SGS-Thomson unveiled STi5500 Omega "One-chip Multimedia EnGine Architecture" at the Western Cable Show in December 1996.

    The single-chip solution integrated an MPEG-2 video/audio decoder, 32-bit processor, transport demultiplexer, Macrovision PAL/NTSC encoder, and video DAC. In fact, the STi5500 Omega device was an integration of two previous chips: the ST20-TP2 transport demultiplexer and the 3520 MPEG-2 decoder.

    According to International Directory of Company Histories, one of the first major breakthroughs at SGS-Thomson—which was created through the merger of French semiconductor operation Thomson-CSF and Italian chipmaker SGS Microelettronica in 1987—came in 1989 when it produced a new chip for Nokia handsets. SGS-Thomson combined power supply and power management features on a single chip, enabling Nokia to achieve standby battery life cycle of more than 60 hours. Eventually, Nokia became a major SGS-Thomson customer.

    ASIC vendors like SGS-Thomson had started to address SoC opportunities during the 1990s by embedding microcontrollers and DSPs into system-level chips that subsequently enabled handheld games, speech processing, data communications, and PC peripheral products.

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    Pasquale Pistorio: SoC marks natural evolution of semiconductor industry
    (Photo courtesy of Pistorio Foundation)

    Eventually, with the STi5500 chip, SGS-Thomson’s risky bet on MPEG decompression technology paid handsomely when the set-top box market took off in the mid-1990s. Back in 1994, set-top boxes were simple channel hopping devices for satellite and cable TV services. The MPEG revolution transformed set-top box into an interactive programming device capable of handling applications like sports events and pay TV.

    The set-top box transformation—spanning from 1994 to 1998—put SGS-Thomson in a leadership position in MPEG decoders, a key building block of digital set-top boxes. The European chip giant first supplied MPEG-2 decoder chips for Hughes Electronics’ DirecTV set-top box, and by 2000, it had captured nearly 62 percent of the market.

    Time for an Open Source design platform?-stm-1.jpg

    The STi5500 multimedia decoder chip
    (Image: STMicroelectronics)

    In 1998, amid privatization drive of both French and Italian governments, Thomson sold off its share in the European chipmaker, and SGS-Thomson became STMicroelectronics. All the while, the Franco-Italian firm maintained its focus on SoC-centric system-level product development and increasing software content.

    SoC: The Big Picture

    ST was among the first crop of chipmakers that emphasized system-level products and SoC-centric designs. Many industry observers credit ST’s SoC leverage in its improving chip market ranking. In 1998 and 1999, Dataquest ranked ST at 9th place in its annual chipmaker ranking. Fast forward to 2013, according to the IC Insights ranking, ST was the fifth largest semiconductor company in the world.

    ST’s focus on SoC technology was obvious at the high-level strategy event it held in Sedona, Arizona in December 2000. ST called it ‘SoC: The Big Picture.’ Jean-Phillipe Dauvi, then ST’s chief economist, told attendees that only chipmakers that offer OEMs system-level package and thus preserve their software investment would eventually win. Other top managers at ST also emphasized how SoC means developing silicon that is tightly linked to final users’ needs.

    At the Sedona event, ST also briefed attendees on its SoC design guideline—internally referred to as Bluebook—that served as a database of IP cores, software stacks, middleware and other key SoC building blocks. Bluebook SoC database facilitated IP reuse and included CISC and RISC processor cores, DSPs, accelerator engines and more.

    Later, in 2002, ST joined hands with Motorola and Philips to create a joint R&D center in Crolles, France for the development of new silicon architecture and libraries for low-power and high-performance SoCs targeted at consumer and communications devices.

    Time for an Open Source design platform?-stm-2.jpg

    (Image credit: Mouser Electronics)
    STMicro's STarGRID ST7590T system-on-chip for powerline communications

    More than two decades ago, ST began the shift from commodity markets toward more specialized SoC products under the leadership of Pasquale Pistorio, who spearheaded the Franco-Italian company’s ascent from a debt-ridden semi-government operation to a semiconductor industry heavyweight. The SoC products allowed ST to take on several fast-growing niches such as disk drives and set-top boxes.

    Also Read: A Brief History of STMicroelectronics

    The SoC technology continues to develop at a relentless pace and is one of the fastest-growing corners of the semiconductor industry. ST—having been so close to the scenes of convergence at the silicon system level—knows the stakes of the SoC game too well. The lackluster performance of ST-Ericsson—the 50-50 joint venture created through the merger of Ericsson’s mobile chipset unit with ST-NXP Wireless—is a stark reminder of how competitive SoC business has become. ST—an early entrant to the system-level integration—is still at the helm while the SoC industry’s pioneering spirit carries on.

    Majeed Ahmad is author of books Smartphone: Mobile Revolution at the Crossroads of Communications, Computing and Consumer Electronics and Nokia’s Smartphone Problem: The End of an Icon?