Consumer devices to drive chip growth

Consumer devices, including mobile and Internet access appliances as well as automotive electronics, will drive growth in the semiconductor market going forward, several industry experts said yesterday during a luncheon panel at a semiconductor conference.

The semiconductor industry is emerging from a two-year market slump, part of an up-and-down cycle that started in the 1980s, to see great potential for growth in newer markets beyond the personal computer, the speakers said at the Industry Strategy Symposium in Pebble Beach, California, sponsored by the Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International (SEMI) trade group.

From 1999 to 2003, the semiconductor industry is predicted to see a 20 per cent growth rate per year driven by "non-motherboard, non-PC applications" such as mobile devices, digital consumer appliances, automotive electronics and Internet access devices, said Jean-Philippe Dauvin, group vice president and chief economist with manufacturer ST Microelectronics.

The semiconductor market, which bottomed out in July 1998 and has been recovering since, is forecast to have a minimum of 7 per cent growth for 1999, depending on the economy, capacity, and demand, Dauvin said. Predictions on those factors favour price increases or stabilisation and an increase in demand fuelled by the digital mobile market, he added.

"We're on the verge of an upswing, beginning this year" and continuing through 2001, said Stan Myers, president of the SEMI association, whose members are companies that supply silicon, wafers and other components to chipmakers. The result will be "larger wafers, higher yield, reduced cost and lower final consumer cost," he said.

The growth in the consumer electronics market is part of a larger shift away from corporate productivity and toward the larger mass market of consumer communication, said Dauvin.

Even low-cost PCs are a result of this focus on consumers, said Mario Morales, program director of semiconductor research for International Data Corp.

"OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are looking to services now for profit because it's gotten to the point where the PC market is a commoditised market," said Morales. "This means there's more pressure on the (semiconductor and component) supplier to add more resources and continue pushing the technology.

"There's a shakeout coming for the semiconductor industry and a shift in the business model" to one that's more horizontal, more focused and less broad-based, Morales added.

Meanwhile, so-called "pervasive computing devices," such as intelligent organisers and other devices that let you compute from anywhere, are creating a huge market opportunity for semiconductor manufacturers, according to James Bartlett, vice president of consumer solutions and strategy at IBM Corp.

To be quickly adopted, Bartlett said, these new devices need to have: low-power silicon chips for longer battery life; open designs for interoperability; low price tags; intuitive usability; focused utility where separate functions are broken into smaller manageable chunks; personalised content; instant access; and fully inter-linked content and service offerings.

"Pervasive computing is just the next evolution beyond where we have been. I don't think it will replace PCs," Bartlett said. "Ten years from now PCs may become less relevant."

SEMI, based in Mountain View, California, can be reached at http://www.semi.org/.

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