Local Silicon Designers Getting into Wi-Fi Gear

As startups struggle to access established chip designers' pricey development systems, columnist Guy Kewney finds local designers playing a bigger role at this year's Computex show in Taipei.

I sure hope Bill Carney likes the weather in Taiwan.

No, hes not here in Taipei with me. Not far as I know, anyway. But he gets my congratulations: The Wi-Fi Alliance couldnt easily have picked a better new chairman—if it had to lose Dennis Eaton—than the senior director of strategic marketing and business development at Texas Instruments Wireless Networking business unit.

But Bill Carney wont be sleeping well if he wanders around the booths here at the Computex show in Taipei, where Ive just spent a week.

Last year, all of the Wi-Fi gear here had chips from the big American suppliers: TI, Broadcom, Conexant (formerly Intersil), Agere and so on. But this year, local silicon designers are getting their noses into the trough.

Each system builder I discussed this with said its very simple, really: Its about access.

"We have to pay $50,000 for the full development system for the American chipmakers," said one candid startup. Hes hoping to be able to afford that one day; he has a really neat idea for a voice-over-Wi-Fi system, which should allow him to retire young if hes got it even half right.

But right now, thats pretty much his first years capital. He has some prototyping to do. He cant finance that out of revenue, because he has no revenue—indeed, if he couldnt camp out in his parents house, hed have no R&D at all, because he cant drive a taxi to pay the rent and design circuits in his spare time.

The big, established chip designers wont even let him see the programming manual.

Here he is, trying to write a Linux driver for a device he has to support, and for which he has to make some standard mods, and the people who sell the device wont help him.

"So, we are buying our stuff from a local company," he said, "because we can do serious development."

They were often quite shy about saying which local company, but after a little digging, Im pretty clear that its "California-based" InProComm that theyre working with. I dare say there are and will be others.

Take it from me: The established companies need to erode some of their arrogance. But its not just arrogance.

Heck, Carney doesnt have to end up working in Taiwan. Several brilliant designers who are paid by the Taiwanese are allowed to stay in Austin, Texas—hi to Glenn Henry, designer of Centaurs processor chips for VIA—and Bill has a support circle of guys in the same state without whom he couldnt do half as good a job as he does.

Next Page: Taking a cue from the history of PCs.