ARM rival MIPS porting Android 4.1 to low-cost tablets

MIPS processors are used in some sub-$100 tablets

MIPS, continuing its push to make a mark in low-cost tablets, is quickly trying to bring Android 4.1, also called Jellybean, to its processors.

"We are working aggressively on bringing Jelly Bean to MIPS, and expect that it will be available to our licensees very soon," said Jen Bernier-Santarini, director of corporation communications at MIPS, in an email.

MIPS is a processor licensing company that battles ARM, which dominates the tablet and smartphone market. But MIPS late last year sprang a surprise by announcing a US$99 tablet, in conjunction with a manufacturer called Ainol, based on its processor and running Android 4.0. The tablet was among the cheapest and among the first at that time with Android 4.0, but this year Google took the honors of releasing the first Android 4.1 device with Nexus 7, which runs on a quad-core ARM processor.

Tablets with MIPS processors are largely low-cost and have found buyers mostly in developing countries. MIPS last week said a new tablet called Miumiu W1 from Chinese company Ramos would become available in a few months in India, Latin America and Europe. The tablet has a 7-inch screen, a MIPS processor running at 1GHz, front camera and a microSD slot for expandable storage. The tablet will come in models with 4GB and 8GB of storage, though prices were not available.

But with only a few device makers adopting MIPS, the company has struggled to make its mark in the mobile device market. Another MIPS competitor is Intel, whose chips are used in smartphones from Lenovo, Lava International and Orange.

Devices based on MIPS processors will receive Android 4.1 over the air, or as a download.

"Historically, our licensees have been able to bring new versions of Android to their devices within a couple of weeks of our making it available to them," Bernier-Santarini said.

But with mobile application development geared toward ARM, complaints have mounted about applications being incompatible on MIPS-powered tablets. MIPS has actively tried to address the issue by working with partners to make more applications compatible with its processors. The company last week touted Halfbrick, which offers Fruit Ninja, and Opera Software as porting applications to work on MIPS tablets.

Developers should also find it easier to write applications for MIPS smartphones and tablets with Google's Revision 8 of the native development kit (NDK) for Android. The NDK has a complete tool set and native support for MIPS instructions, so developers writing applications for the ARM instruction set should also find it easy to offer MIPS support.

But even if MIPS moves quickly to support Android 4.1, the company will again struggle to compete with ARM and Intel, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

ARM dominates the market, and the number of design wins for other architectures like Intel and MIPS is negligible.

There is certainly room for competition from an alternative architecture, but the difference is Intel has vast manufacturing, development and financial resources, while MIPS is far more constrained, Brookwood said.

"It's hard to envision MIPS ... getting significant traction in market share," Brookwood said.

In May, MIPS released a new generation of processors called Aptiv, which will replace the older 74K processors used in tablets. MIPS processors are 64-bit, giving it a slight advantage over ARM, which currently has 32-bit addressing. The Aptiv processors received good reviews, delivering performance comparable or better than current ARM processors, said J. Scott Gardner, a senior analyst at the Linley Group, in a newsletter sent last month.

Devices based on Aptiv cores could be out in as soon as a year, or perhaps longer, MIPS' Bernier-Santarini said.

The largest market for MIPS is the embedded market, with its processors appearing in set-top boxes, TV sets, networking equipment and other embedded devices. The company is now trying to make a play in the fast-growing smartphone and tablet market, but is reportedly considered an acquisition target. Analysts say that the Chinese government, most likely through a semiprivate company, is a potential suitor. Chinese entities already license the company's processors in chip designs, and are looking to build a home-grown chip as a way to cut reliance on chip companies like Intel.

China has already made some design decisions based on the MIPS instruction set for supercomputers and PCs through chips like Loongson.

"That would be an interesting play," Insight 64's Brookwood said.

The Chinese government could mandate usage of MIPS in mobile devices, but the market is global and the company could continue to struggle to find adoption in countries outside China, Brookwood said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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