The Innovation Trail: Hisilicon

Hutong West
Blue Moon and Justified
1942 hrs

When challenged to come up with examples of innovative Chinese companies – or those that might start innovating soon – many of us are hard-pressed to come up with names beyond the obvious Tencent, Huawei, and Lenovo. To help remedy this, and to make a balanced case for China as an innovator, I am going to start highlighting select Chinese companies that I believe are moving in that direction.

One company to keep on the radar is Hisilicon. Formerly Huawei’s application-specific chip (ASIC) division, Hisilicon has developed a system-on-a-chip (SOC) product line designed for mobile devices. The recent announcement that Huawei will be using Hisilicon chips in its upcoming flagship Ascend P7 mobile phone offers no surprise – on the surface. In fact, a skeptic might suggest that Hisense winning a spot on a a Huawei device is so much internal self-dealing.

The skeptic would be only half right. Huawei’s mobile device team are a loyal bunch, but the company’s leaders are no idiots. To risk the company’s tenuous reputation among consumers in an insanely competitive market merely to engage in some gratuitous dogfooding is uncharacteristic of the firm. Something else is going on, and it is likely that Hisilicon is sneaking up on the better-known MicroTek in its ability to provide the processing power for complex smartphones. If that is the case, Hisilicon is about to pop onto the radars of both Qualcomm and Intel as well.

Before we add Hisilicon to the ranks of mobile chip powerhouses, however, we need to add an important caveat. It makes good sense for Huawei to buy from Hisilicon if it can, but it probably does not make as much sense for other manufacturers. Putting a chip into a phone design involves more than just buying processors off the shelf and sticking them on a printed circuit board. Smartphone testing and development demands close cooperation between component providers, essentially letting everyone in the process into a lot of proprietary secrets.

If I were a smartphone manufacturer, I would look at Hisense SOCs in the same way that I would look at Samsung memory: whatever the virtues of the silicon, I am giving my competitor a close-up look at my mojo. In a world where Samsung and Huawei are pulling out all stops to lead the smartphone business, that’s writing an invitation to my own funeral.

So that is why I am watching Hisilicon. The technical capabilities are growing to the point where the company is likely to become a nexus of innovation, but the commercial challenges it faces are interesting indeed.