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Changing the Rules

QuickLogic ArcticLink II CX

QuickLogic may not be on your radar if you follow the FPGA industry.  A few years back, they got frustrated with the FPGA game, took their football, and went home.  They decided, apparently, that they could change the rules of the game and be more successful.

How dare they?

Instead of grinding on with a huge hill to climb in the rough-and-tumble FPGA market, they climbed up on a ladder, took down the FPGA sign, and made a new sign that better suited their needs:  “CSSP.”  Now they are the undisputed leader in the CSSP market.  Score one for changing the rules.

Of course, you may point out that they are also the only player in the CSSP market, and that if you Google “CSSP,” nothing electronics-related comes up on the first page.  In fact, “Clear Springs Scuba Park” has a higher Google rating, Wikipedia will send you to a religious organization that was founded in 1703, and Bing sends us to the “Center for the Study of Social Policy.”  Clearly, CSSP has not taken root as an industry term.

That hasn’t stopped QuickLogic from rapidly carving out a highly-differentiated, lucrative market niche using (shhhh, don’t tell) FPGA technology, however.  Their latest FPGA – er, oops, sorry “CSSP” family – ArcticLink II CX – looks destined to sell way more copies than it would as a “plain-old FPGA.”

Here’s the deal.  First, instead of distributing and supporting FPGA development tools and IP, QuickLogic now does the design for their customer.  That means QuickLogic customers don’t have to learn about FPGA design in order to take advantage of QuickLogic parts, and QuickLogic doesn’t have to support a set of tools for a bunch of new users that won’t be able to use them to their best advantage anyway.  QuickLogic’s engineers are clearly the biggest experts in getting the most out of their tools, IP, and programmable logic technology, and now every customer gets the benefit of that expertise.

Second, QuickLogic can create ASSP-like devices aimed at specific, high-volume, high-value applications, and then customize them for each customer using the built-in FPGA fabric.  This is a key to making the “do the design for them” strategy work, because it lets QuickLogic focus their resources on the types of design work that will generate big-time volume.  In today’s market, that means anything you can land in a socket in a consumer mobile device.

In today’s mobile market, the Tier 1 suppliers like Apple can do most of the work themselves.  They have the enormous budgets and engineering resources to create optimized SoCs that have just about everything in them.  Below that stratospheric layer, however, is a jungle of Tier 2 suppliers – all of whom are trying to meet or beat the Tier 1 folks in selected areas.  QuickLogic is creating super-low-power, high-value, optimized devices that lets Tier 2 take advantage of the hyper-customizability of FPGA fabric, so they can go head-to-head with Tier 1 on capabilities without the Tier 1 investment.

The latest of these QuickLogic super-parts – ArcticLink II CX – is aimed at optimizing the video experience in the mobile arena.  Drop one of these devices in your design, and you get USB 2.0 connectivity, high-performance side-loading for content like video (saving the burden on your application processor), data and content protection, and mobile flash support – all with the customizability of an FPGA, the power consumption of a custom SoC, and a price much closer to the latter than the former.  Best of all – QuickLogic does all the heavy lifting – you just tell ‘em what your design needs.

ArcticLink II CX sports an integrated USB 2.0 controller and PHY, as well as a three-port hub supporting high-speed and PHY-less interfaces.  It has an integrated RISC CPU dedicated to side-loading with an Adaptive Instruction Set Accelerator (AISA) that allows for custom, application-specific hardware acceleration.  It can manage your data and content protection with support for AES/CPRM and CPXM/SHA at data rates as high as 60MB per second – or even more.  If (unlike Apple) you want to put support for removable flash into your mobile device, ArcticLink II CX supports the latest SDXC and eMMC 4.4 at speeds up to 54MB/sec.

Because of the easily-configurable FPGA fabric, QuickLogic can customize these features for your particular application and maybe integrate a few other features as well.  It’s like having your own custom SoC designed – at a tiny fraction of the price.  Look out, Apple!

QuickLogic is targeting ArcticLink II CX at the gamut of mobile devices including Smartphones, Tablets, and DataCards.  Following on the design-in success of their VEE (visual enhancement engine) parts – which optimized mobile video viewing while dramatically reducing power consumption, ArcticLink II CX brings software and firmware customizability to the party, expanding the range of customization that QuickLogic can do for their customers.

QuickLogic’s cleverness in developing their CSSP strategy is a perfect example of turning a weakness into a strength.  Since QuickLogic’s FPGA fabric is based on anti-fuse technology (where permanent, metal-to-metal connections create the customization), they faced resistance from designers who didn’t like throwing away a part every time they did a debug design spin.  Since the parts were only one-time programmable, each development iteration meant throwing away a part and burning a new one.  Compared with SRAM-style FPGAs that were re-configurable, this was a significant developer inconvenience. 

With the CSSP strategy, the customer is insulated from that experience and, in fact, from the whole FPGA design process.  This opens up CSSPs to a vast audience that might have never had the courage or wherewithal to tackle FPGA design, but who can easily walk in and give QuickLogic their system specs for a customized ArcticLink device.

By changing the rules and traveling the road-never-taken, QuickLogic has shifted their competition – from companies like Xilinx and Altera to less differentiated solutions like bridge ASSPs and software-only solutions to high-performance problems.  In that realm, the hidden FPGA gives them a distinct advantage.  While the company has clearly not yet experienced explosive revenue growth as a result of the strategy, there is substantial evidence that they’re winning big sockets that should show up in future payback once those designs go into high volume production.  ArcticLink II CX should be a new, even more powerful wave of that same effect.

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