What Imagination’s Acquisition of MIPS Means for Mobile Chip Diversity


Mobile graphics chip designer Imagination Technologies has just thrown down the gauntlet in the smartphone arena, with the acquisition of CPU architect MIPS Technologies for a cool $60m.

The deal, which will see Imagination Technologies step up its challenge against an increasingly dominant ARM Holdings, sees the company takeover MIPS’ entire business operations and many of its patents.

It’s a pretty ambitious move by Imagination Technologies, considering just how much of an advantage ARM currently holds in the mobile processor market. Whilst the PC sector is all about Intel and AMD, everything smaller – from smartphones to network controllers – is built using cores from ARM or MIPS.

Unseating ARM in the mobile race

With smartphones and tablets, ARM has been particularly successful; pretty much every major brand uses an ARM processor core, or a custom-made core based on its architecture. MIPS meanwhile, has largely failed to make much of an impact in the mobile arena with the exception of a few, low-cost tablets and phones, but instead provides chips for other kinds of devices – such as digital TVs, blu-ray players, and video games consoles.

Imagination Technologies meanwhile, is better known for its PowerVR graphics cores, which are mainly used within mobile processors. The company is partly owned by Apple and Intel, and its graphics are used to drive both the Apple A-Series processors and the Intel Atom processors. It could be that the company’s acquisition of MIPS has to do with the fact that ARM is now attempting to muscle in on its own territory, with the release of its Mali graphics core which has been taken up by devices like the Samsung Galaxy SIII.

The acquisition of MIPS, together with its engineering team and 82 patents it holds, will allow Imagination Technologies to “create a new industry-leading force in CPU development and licensing”, something it hopes to do by combining its own resources and expertise with that of MIPS.

Interestingly, Imagination Technologies didn’t buy all of the patents that MIPS holds, only the 82 that it deemed most crucial to its operations. The other 498 patents have actually been snapped up for $350 million by an ARM-led consortium called Bridge Crossing that plans to cross-license with Imagination.

According to ARM, which is shouldering a hefty $167.5 million of that price, the deal will allow “companies to neutralize any potential infringement risk from these patents in the further development of advanced embedded technology.”

Hopefully then, this means that the patents will be used for defensive purposes, and doesn’t signal the start of any bitter feuding between processor makers like we have seen with Apple, Samsung and co.

Imagination seeks broader appeal

A big question mark hangs over whether or not the new linkup between MIPS and Imagination will actually be able to deliver a product that is capable of competing with ARM in the mobile processor market, an important consideration for CIOs. Part of the answer will lie in technology, but the scale of their operation may also have an impact – lest we forget, ARM is far larger and already has a huge lead, and even though some Android devices do use MIPS, the flagship devices always seem to go with ARM designs before anyone else.

The acquisition could mean broader appeal for Imagination, especially as hardware-software co-verification concerns are on the rise with the prominence of mobile devices in the workplace.

“Imagination does have the Meta core, however it is missing the primary ingredients of software and IP-fab support needed to succeed broadly,” writes Don Dingee of Left2MyOwnDevices. “MIPS processors are on cutting edge 28nm technology and are backed by Android and other operating systems, where Meta was never viewed by anyone as a serious merchant part. The combination of world-class PowerVR graphics IP with advanced processor cores from MIPS forms a good synergy.”