Imagination is up for sale as it nets MobilEye for its new MIPS core

Imagination Technologies, UK-based designer of processor cores, has put itself up for sale, weeks after its investor and largest customer, Apple, said it would stop using Imagination’s GPU cores and create its own for future iDevices.

This opened up the potential for a significant revenue hole – and possible future legal battles – for Imagination, which had already lost its long-time CEO, Sir Hossein Yossaie, as it struggled to diversify its product offerings.

The company’s depressed shares leapt on the news that, as expected, it was seeking a buyer. It had already put its two non-GPU business units – MIPS, the venerable CPU core designer, and connectivity firm Ensigma – on the block and said there is interest in them. However, it is possible that a bidder will emerge now which wants the whole company, since before the Apple bombshell, Imagination had been putting together a logical plan to device a full platform, especially for the Internet of Things, spanning various types of core plus connectivity.

And although MIPS and Ensigma generate less revenue than the core Power VR platform (which accounts for 70%), over half of that product’s sales come from Apple. Imagination has already mounted legal proceedings over license payments from Apple, while questioning whether the iPhone maker can realistically create its own GPU without using any Imagination IPR. Apple says it will stop using the components by Q2 2019.

Potential bidders for Imagination could include Qualcomm, Intel and even Apple itself, which owns 8% of the company and could take control of its own GPU destiny while accelerating its deployment timelines and avoiding possible litigation, by snapping up its current supplier. Conversely, Qualcomm might regard Imagination as useful ammunition in its own increasingly bitter patents dispute with Apple (see separate item), as well as a way to enrich its own GPU architecture, Adreno (and it if shows interest, that could force Apple’s hand).

Intel was also an investor in Imagination until 2015 but could revive its interest now. It has been on the back foot in GPUs as they move to the center of many technology platforms to support virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Intel pushes an alternative approach for these highly compute-intensive applications, based on its own CPUs, co-processors and FPGAs, but it has seen rival Nvidia make headway with its GPU-oriented platforms and may seek to improve its own capabilities, especially as Nvidia now has investment from deep-pocketed Softbank to help it accelerate its progress.

If Intel or Qualcomm acquired MIPS as well as Imagination’s core business, they could also hasten the decline of the MIPS processor core, as a rival to ARM or x86 in markets such as broadband – but also take advantage of the subsidiary’s recent developments in low power IoT processor such as ‘vision processing units (VPUs). Those have gained some support among influential Chinese players, and would fit well with Intel’s activities in autonomous vehicles and machine vision.

However, despite the clear attractions of Imagination in a world where large companies are scrabbling for GPU and IoT chip expertise, it is unlikely to gain a very high price because its new owner would inherit the disputes with Apple (if Apple is not the buyer) and a tough competitive landscape. ARM, for years the poor relation in GPUs, managed to overtake PowerVR with its own Mali IP core in 2016, while Imagination does not control the MIPS IP portfolio, only its products – the IP was sold to a consortium led by ARM when Imagination bought them.

“I would expect the company to be sold either in pieces or at a discount, because I see little value in the MIPS and Ensigma group,” Jim McGregor, principal analyst with chip research firm Tirias Group, told EETimes. “The most likely reason to buy Imagination is the IP portfolio. With this in mind, there are many companies that could potentially be interested in Imagination ranging from patent trolls to major IP vendors, semiconductor vendors, ODMs, contract manufacturers, and even OEMs.”

Despite all these challenges, Imagination has been enhancing its platforms to boost the value to an acquirer, as well as its sales. Just before the announcement that it was up for sale, it unveiled a new MIPS processor design and revealed Mobileye as a customer for the new I6500-F.

This is part of a new generation of chips that are designed to handle heterogenous compute workloads in AI-based systems and tasks. The I6500-F is a 64-bit MIPS-based processor core, which has been designed to pass the important functional safety (FuSa) requirements for the ISO 26262 and IEC 61508 standards. Imagination says that this compliance makes it ideal for safety-critical systems in Industrial IoT (IIoT) and autonomous vehicles.

“We’re providing the performance needed to drive the compute-intensive tasks in a new generation of autonomous and intelligent systems. The I6500-F is a thoroughly tested IP solution that will help ensure customers can meet the most stringent safety requirements. If you are building an SoC for this kind of system today, you need the I6500-F,” said Jim Nicholas, Imagination’s EVP of MIPS processor IP.

The new design is part of a new family of processors, which Imagination has badged as ‘FortifAI,’ and is denoting by the -F suffix. The company envisions them being used to provide scalable compute power for AI-based processes. Multiple clusters of CPUs can be combined, with the I6500-F supporting up to 64 clusters of multi-threaded multi-core CPUs and GPU-based processing accelerators. Imagination also says that new AI-based techniques like Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) and Deep Neural Networks (DNNs) are supported.

Notably, Imagination has already signed a major customer for the new chip, with Mobileye set to use the processor in its upcoming EyeQ5 SoC – which processes video feeds to provide computer-vision navigational capabilities to self-driving cars. Mobileye is in the process of being acquired by Intel, for some $15.3bn – a price apparently justified by Intel’s confidence in the potential growth of the sector. Should Intel’s confidence be well-placed, Imagination should hopefully enjoy good revenues from its automotive sales.

Mobileye currently uses Imagination’s InterAptiv and M5150 CPUs in its upcoming EyeQ4 SoC, which is making its debut this year (with the EyeQ5 scheduled for 2020). MIPS is also used in the EyeQ3, which is currently used by a number of semi-autonomous vehicles, including Tesla – a business relationship that soured and will not extend to the EyeQ4.

The goal for the EyeQ5 is to provide an open software platform, to allow customers to deploy their own (often bespoke) software environments on the platform – which will use a 7nm FinFET manufacturing process. This open platform hinges on the I6500-F’s architecture, uniting those aforementioned processing units and serving the variety of hardware configurations that are going to be found in the emerging sensor fusion boards.

Mobileye’s Elchanan Rushinek, SVP Engineering, said: “Our EyeQ5 SoC will be the most advanced solution of its kind for fully autonomous vehicles, which will start rolling out in 2020. The ASIL B(D) features in the I6500-F are key to ensuring our chip achieve the highest level of safety. Full cache coherency between CPUs and vision accelerators in the I6500-F makes it an ideal platform for heterogenous compute, and unique features such as inter-thread communication add to the real time capability. MIPS multithreaded CPUs have played a key role in helping successive generations of our EyeQ SoCs achieve significant gains in performance, efficiency, and safety.”

So MIPS may prove a crown jewel for an Imagination bidder after all. And we should hope that a single buyer takes all the Imagination businesses, and can build on the beginnings of a unified platform, which the firm had put in place by acquiring MIPS and Ensigma. Those purchases were supposed to create a full IP platform, encompassing the CPU, GPU and WiFi/Bluetooth connectivity, which would be particularly targeted at emerging device categories in the IoT, self-driving cars and wearables, and would make Imagination more competitive with ARM.

Many of Imaginations’s recent developments have been about optimizing the MIPS/Ensigma/PowerVR triangle for low power connected devices, and trying to steal a march on ARM in terms of building an ecosystem, particularly in China. In April 2015, it showed off new versions of its Ensigma cores specifically targeting IoT designs. Those Ensigma Whisper radio processing units (RPUs) run on MIPS processing cores and integrate WiFi 802.11n, Bluetooth LE, or both. And it also debuted a series of ultra-low power MIPS cores dubbed ‘wearables processing units’ or WPUs, securing several Chinese partnerships in the process.

In October, Imagination CEO Andrew Heath told the Financial Times: “We plan to focus on our core. We have protected PowerVR, MIPS and Ensigma businesses from cuts and restructuring, we are actively recruiting in those areas.” Prior to that, the company had sold its lossmaking and non-core digital radio division, Pure, for £2.6m to AVenture AT of Austria, and made other cutbacks in the wake of some poor results and the departure of long-time CEO Sir Hossein Yassaie.