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The Prestige

Mobile: Intel Will Overtake Qualcomm In Three Years

So, on one hand, you have PowerVR with its proven track record in Intel, Apple, and TI chips, and Qualcomm with its access to legends of the Finnish demo scene.

Only that’s the thing: Most of the key team from BitBoys left Qualcomm a year ago to start SIRU Innovations Oy.

SIRU Innovations Oy is a start-up that has been running in stealth mode for the past year. It claims to be developing a licensable low-power graphics IP core. You’ve probably never even heard of SIRU, which goes to show you the difference between technology journalists who like to follow companies and talk about the organization's expertise and those who follow the human talent.

SIRU’s team is still flying low enough under the radar to the point where we don’t know who all of the members are. But brothers Mika and Kaj Tuomi are co-founders, along with Mikko Alho. Mikko, SIRU’s CEO, was the graphics processor hardware project manager for Qualcomm Finland. Importantly, although Mikko is in a management position, keeping things on-track with project planning, resourcing, design definition, day-to-day project leading, and project status reporting, he was doing the block design for BitBoys in the 90s, including the C- and RTL-model implementation. That means SIRU’s management is run by an engineer and not just a suit. Jarkko Makivaara, Qualcomm Finland’s former director of engineering, is also with SIRU. Jari Komppa, a senior engineer with Qualcomm Finland, is now with SIRU. He is a demo legend, winning first place at the Text Mode Demo Competition XI, first innovation, second theme in ludum dare 48 game design contest #4, second place at the Assembly99 3d-accelerated demo competition, first place at the Assembly98 demo competition, and first place at the Assembly96 demo competition. There are other engineers at SIRU as well, all from BitBoys.

So, the top graphics engineers who joined Qualcomm in 2009 and have almost a decade of experience working on mobile graphics haven’t been contributing exclusively to Qualcomm for roughly a year.

Remember that PowerVR’s missteps came from a lack of engineers able to anticipate the needs of software developers and users. That’s not a problem with SIRU, built with a cadre of demo coders, as well as former programmers from Fathammer, a game development studio.

Additionally, we all know that graphics hardware is only as good as its supporting software driver. Updated GPU drivers for the Adreno 205 were responsible for an almost-50% performance improvement. And that’s where the final piece of the puzzle comes together. The team at SIRU is filled with engineers who are legends and wizards with x86 technology, whose expertise in the early 90s with single-core, in-order execution CPUs remain unmatched. Do you think it’s still unusual that the Atom and Near Threshold Voltage Concept are built around the Pentium?

Can the Qualcomm Finland software team extract enough performance from the hardware, even in the absence of many of contributing members of the Adreno GPU team? 

Oh wait; a lot of those guys are gone, too.

Marko Laiho, BitBoys’ chief software architect and a director of engineering with Qualcomm Finland left half a year ago to start another stealth start-up, Vire Labs.Joining him is Joonas Torkelli, the BitBoys product manager for handheld IP, who was the graphics software lead in Finland for Qualcomm, Jani Huhtanen, a senior staff engineer with Qualcomm with expertise in GPU drivers and 2D/3D graphics algorithms, and Jusso Heikkila as the Vire Labs’s lead Android developer.They even have Kari Malmber as their creative director, a graphic designer who was with the BitBoys team and most recently worked at Qualcomm Finland on 3D material for demos and designing mobile phone user interfaces.

With the exodus of several important players, there is no question that Qualcomm's graphics division was dealt a big blow. Human talent that was once exclusive to Qualcomm is now found in two stealth start-ups that clearly intend to license their technology to as many customers as possible.

Closing Thoughts

There are exactly zero shipping Intel-based smartphones today. Qualcomm brought in $4.12 billion of revenue in Q4’ 2011. But things will change over the next three years the same way things changed for Kodak.

You have Qualcomm, which faces challenges on the manufacturing side due to gambling on gate-first high-k and now being forced to go with standard silicon, challenges on the CPU engineering side as it moves to a true out-of-order execution design, and challenges on the GPU side from losing a substantial amount of exclusive talent.

Then, you have Intel, which dominates manufacturing, has demonstrated a competitive 32 nm product before even tapping into out-of-order CPU designs, and the freedom to choose between PowerVR’s graphics technology, whatever emerges from SIRU, or perhaps even a future design derived from its own engineers.

I'm calling it right here: three years from now, Intel will overtake Qualcomm in the MSoC business. Discuss.

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