Gartner: Chip industry in 'indefinite' slowdown

The global semiconductor industry is in a slowdown that one industry analyst doesn't see it coming out of time soon, if ever.

The global semiconductor industry is in a slowdown that one industry analyst doesn't see it coming out of time soon, if ever.

Worldwide semiconductor revenue totaled $US273.9 billion last year, up just 3.8 per cent from 2006, according to a report from Gartner. For an industry that's accustomed to double-digit growth, the growth last year was noticeably slight. However, it's a result that the industry may have to get used to, according to Gartner analyst, Richard Gordon.

"Obviously, it's better than negative growth, but from a historic semiconductor view, it's not strong growth," Gordon told Computerworld. "The market is in a low-single-digit growth phase. It's a concern. The high growth of the late '90s seems to be in the past now. I don't see anything on the horizon that will fuel growth in the near future. We're talking about long-term - about forever."

He added that he simply doesn't see any major new growth drivers - like the PC and cell phone were - on the horizon. "It just seems to be more of the same," Gordon said. "From a demand point of view, there will definitely be volume growth, but pricing pressure will continue. We are concerned that we're in an indefinite low-revenue growth phase."

So what does the slowdown mean for users? It could mean lower chip prices for consumers and businesses, as well as an atmosphere conducive to semiconductor industry consolidation, according to Gartner.

Gordon declined to speculate on which companies might hang on and which might get gobbled up.

"I wouldn't like to name any names, but it's really the mid-tier," he noted. "The Intels and Samsungs are strong enough to survive on their own, but the mid-tiers are more questionable. Advanced Micro Devices is a tricky one. They've done quite a bit already in terms of sorting out their cost base. They have partnerships with the likes of IBM. They have had to reinvent themselves quite a bit. They're in a unique position because they're really only competing with Intel. I can't see anything happening there."

With the semiconductor market slowing and the US economy stumbling, 2007 was a mixed year for processor manufacturers. Gartner's numbers show that three vendors had double-digit growth, while four vendors suffered through revenue declines.

Intel's revenue increased by 10.7 per cent between 2006 and 2007 and the company remained the largest on Gartner's Top 10 list. Toshiba, meanwhile, reported the highest revenue growth rate -- 20.8 per cent. Toshiba's gains moved it up from the sixth largest semiconductor vendor in 2006 to the third largest last year, right behind Intel and Samsung Electronics.

"That was quite a strong performance for Toshiba -- probably the best performing of the Japanese companies over the last few years," said Gordon. "They do a lot of business with game console makers, like Sony ? and they're strong in the flash market."

AMD didn't fare well in 2007, with revenue declining by 20.9 per cent according to Gartner. The company, though, did retain its spot as the ninth largest industry player.

AMD struggled not only financially in 2007, Gordon said, noting that product delays also dealt it a market share and mind share blow. The delays came just as rival, Intel, was shipping its new quad-core and 45 nanometre processors.

"It's an issue of competitiveness in high-end processors," said Gordon. "[AMD] had to reduce pricing to try to ship products into the mainstream market. And a delay in chips didn't help. There was an issue with integrating the acquisition of ATI Technologies. These things are always tricky to do. They're also suffering from Intel's rebound. Pretty much across the board, they struggled a bit last year."

AMD, though, seems to be getting its footing again, pushing out a graphics chipset in early March and a slew of new desktop processors last week.

With the first AMD Barcelona-based systems expected to hit the market in April, and a 65-watt quad-core desktop chip and a triple-core desktop chip now in the mix, AMD may be starting to kick back into gear.

This renewed life has some analysts wondering if the chip war between AMD and Intel might be back on track. And if it is, they say that could only mean good things - like lower chip prices and more innovation - for buyers.

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Sharon Gaudin

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