MIPS breaks into Android mobile phones with latest chips

When it comes to cell phone chips, ARM has been virtually unchallenged. Intel has been trying for a few years to break into the market. But now yet another challenger is entering the fray.

MIPS Technologies is announcing this week at the Consumer Electronics Show – the tech industry extravaganza that takes place this week in Las Vegas — that it has created versions of its chip designs for cell phones and other mobile devices based on the Android operating system. And it has also won over some customers for its designs, including Chinese chip maker Ingenic Semiconductor, a new licensee that will use MIPS designs in chips for both smartphones and tablet computers.

“Customers are looking for alternatives to monopoly suppliers,” said Art Swift, vice president of marketing at MIPS, a decades-old company that was the key supplier of chips for the pioneering graphics computer firm Silicon Graphics. “In the mobile market, we think there is plenty of room for competition.”

While Intel both designs and manufactures chips, ARM creates designs for microprocessors that it licenses to a broad array of chip makers. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based MIPS operates the same way, creating a MIPS architecture that can be licensed to chip makers, who sell the chips to gadget makers. One of the newest gadget makers to adopt MIPS designs is Ingenic.

While the new customers are a big potential source of revenue for MIPS, it has a long way to go to catch up with ARM, whose licensees ship billions of chips based on ARM’s low-power chip architecture each year. MIPS chips have been beefier in terms of performance but haven’t been as good historically on power consumption, which is critical in small devices that operate on battery power. MIPS has done well in TV sets, particularly the web-connected TVs that are more like computers.

Still, MIPS is no slouch. The company is profitable (net income was up 235 percent in the most recent quarter) and revenues are growing (up 50 percent from a year ago). Its designs are used in more than 600 million chips a year, which are built into a wide array of digital consumer devices: networking gear, set-top boxes, TVs and Blu-ray players. MIPS is the market share leader in chips for digital TVs and set-top boxes, said Art Swift, vice president of marketing at MIPS.

Now it’s time to make some headway into the mobile device market with more power-efficient MIPS designs, said Swift. That’s because the mobile devices — tablets, e-readers or phones — require more and more performance to handle apps that feature rich media and graphics.

On display at CES will be two MIPS-based smartphones, a MIPS-based ebook reader, and several MIPS-based tablets. Both Ingenic and Actions Semiconductor are showing off MIPS-based chips running in these devices. Ingenic has shipped more than 25 million chips to date, mostly for gadgets in the Chinese market.

Less than a year ago, MIPS said it planned to enter the mobile market by designing chips that could run the Google Android software. Overall, including unannounced products, MIPS has seven wins for its designs in cell phones, Swift said. That’s a minor dent in ARM’s business, but it’s a start.

Swift said that Intel’s chips are still too power-hungry for the cell phone market. Quoting Nvidia chief executive Jen-Hsun Huang, Swift said about Intel’s big and power-inefficient chips, “An elephant on a diet is still an elephant.”