Small is beautiful – our market’s characteristics

Posted: 06.01.06

SupermanNot small as in Lilliputian or pygmy, or small as in weak or puny, but, well, tiny, and shrinking all the time. E. F. Schumacher popularized the notion, and the term, in his landmark 1971 essays, and although his original thesis is long forgotten, the term isn’t; and so today I am applying it to the handheld and PC markets.

These markets are shrinking in the feature size, the process used, to make the products they sell. And yet, the parts don’t get smaller—to the contrary, they get larger and draw more power. It’s the mystery of the industry, some strange perversion of the law of entropy. Sometimes they shrink and stay the same size, but they almost always end up using more power in doing that. And since using more power results in more heat dissipation, and there’s only one way to dissipate heat, which becomes a function of square meters of surface area, the problem is compounded. In this case smaller is not more beautifuler, it’s more hotter. It would take Superman to blow on it to cool it off.

And although this tiny industry is as obsessed with size as a New York model or a California divorcée, in one param-eter, money, it is really huge and getting huge’er. Again, the California divorcée comes to mind: tiny and rich.

These tiny things are in the computer market, which is estimated to be worth $220 billion in 2005, and in the mobile phone market, which is estimated to be worth $68 billion in 2005. It’s interesting how excited everyone gets about the mobile phone market, and it’s not even one-third the value of the PC market, and even less than that for the multimedia processor suppliers. But the unit number is what gets everyone excited, billions of units, billions! (As an exercise for the reader, do a web search and see if you can find the market value for the mobile phone market, worldwide in dollars. Send your results to

And the mobile phone market is also getting smaller, not only in terms of the parts used, but in the number of parts suppliers. In this issue (see p. 1) we tell the story about how ARM of Cambridge, England, has acquired Falanx of Norway, which of course follows the spate of recent acquisitions of smaller IP companies by larger ones, and a consolidation we predicted in our Multimedia Devices for Handhelds market study (and yes, we are working on an update—these things take time y’know).

And although it’s not really a consolidation, more of a lateral shift, we also tell the story of Santa Clara–based Marvell’s acquisition of the Intel XScale and wireless product line (begins p. 1). Will there be more? Of course. Will all the small suppliers disappear? Yes. Will the market be dominated by two, maybe three, big suppliers, as is the PC market? What do you think? Of course. Soon? Before the end of this decade. (That ought to set the lemmings off—move away from the edge or you’ll get trampled.)

The consolidation of the handheld market suppliers is especially true when you take into consideration that the semiconductor market for application processors in 2005 was just $21 billion, and even with all its SoC’ness will only reach $40 billion by 2010. Now don’t get me wrong, a $40 billion market is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not big enough to support 20 or so vendors. So the number of suppliers will get smaller. And, as we all know, small is beautiful, right?