In June of 2013 Edward Snowden copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA). His actions exposed numerous surveillance programs that many governments around the world reacted to, including China. In September of 2013 China Vice Premier Ma Kai declared semiconductors a key sector for the security of China. As a result Chinese mobile carriers replaced American made networking equipment (Cisco) and the Chinese government has pledged more than $100B to internal semiconductor development including SoCs. A modern SoC has billions of gates and it only takes a handful to create a back door, right?
To secure smartphones the Chinese government tapped Spreadtrum Communications CEO Leo Li to make special-order “safe” SoCs to foil foreign spies. At the end of 2013 the publicly held Spreadtrum was acquired by Tsinghua Unigroup (backed by the Chinese government) for $1.78B. As a result, Spreadtrum has grown rapidly and now has R&D facilities in Shanghai, Beijing Tianjin, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Xiamen, San Diego, San Jose, Finland, and India. Spreadtrum is privately held now so revenues are not reported but from what I understand they will come very close to $2B in 2016 making them one of the top ten fabless semiconductor companies.
About Spreadtrum Communications
As an affiliate of Tsinghua Unigroup, Ltd, Spreadtrum Communications is a fabless semiconductor company that develops mobile chipset platforms for smartphones, feature phones and other consumer electronics products, supporting 2G, 3G and 4G wireless communications standards. Spreadtrum's solutions combine its highly integrated, power-efficient chipsets with customizable software and reference designs in a complete turnkey platform, enabling customers to achieve faster design cycles with a lower development cost. Spreadtrum's customers include global and China-based manufacturers developing mobile products for consumers in China and emerging markets around the world. For more information, visit www.spreadtrum.com.
The majority of Spreadtrum SoCs are ARM based using off-the-shelf ARM cores. That changed of course with the 2015 $1.5B Intel investment:
"China is now the largest consumption market for smartphones and has the largest number of Internet users in the world," said Brian Krzanich, Intel CEO. "These agreements with Tsinghua Unigroup underscore Intel's 29-year-long history of investing in and working in China. This partnership will also enhance our ability to support a wider range of mobile customers in China and the rest of the world by more quickly delivering a broader portfolio of Intel architecture and communications technology solutions."
Spreadtrum is now sampling Intel based 14nm SoCs as well as TSMC/ARM based 16nm SOCs. This is standard Chinese strategy of developing multiple chip types and letting the best design win. The question is: Can off-the-shelf ARM and Intel cores compete against the custom ARM architecture SoCs designed by Qualcomm? The answer is no, not on the mid-to-high end smartphones. We can see this in the QCOM vs MediaTek SoC benchmarks and resulting China market shares (MKT uses off-the-shelf ARM cores).
It has always been my opinion that in order to compete with QCOM in the SoC business you will have to license the ARM architecture and create your own cores and that is what Spreadtrum has now done. Notice that Spreadtrum has an R&D center in San Jose (down the street from ARM), that is the group that is doing the custom ARM SoC architecture and from what I have heard they already taped out their first version (ARM Cortex-A53 Class) on TSMC 28nm with FinFET versions to follow.
The billion dollar questions is: Will the Spreadtrum custom SOCs benchmark better than Qualcomm and MediaTek? The answer of course is that they do not have to for rapid adoption in the Chinese market. Remember, Spreadtrum is backed by the Chinese government for the security of China, absolutely.