Once upon a time, in the 1970s, a leading electronics company that was not a semiconductor company spent a large amount of money to become the world leader in IC process capabilities.
This company developed its own internal semiconductor capabilities so that it could make ICs for its own competitive needs. The company was Tektronix, and the decision maker behind the venture was engineering vice president Bill Walker. The Tek “super high frequency” process produced BJTs with the highest fT anywhere on the planet.
Characteristic of Tek culture was the willingness to explore new frontiers, to take risks and seek new ideas. As a consequence, Tek ended up with the leading BJT process, and it was devoted to making (mostly) fast ICs for oscilloscope vertical amplifiers. Over time, however, the overhead of maintaining the leading processes only for the 'scope market could not be justified, and a joint venture with Maxim resulted. (Maxim is the sponsor of Integration Nation on Planet Analog.)
In reflecting upon this thread of history, there might be an answer to the question of where semiconductor companies can go from here. As it is, these companies function in a supporting role in the electronics industry, making parts that others use to make end products. As a consequence, their success depends on the success of those who can use their parts. Semiconductor companies therefore have an interest in how their parts are used, and to some extent encourage other companies in industries with technology that could most benefit from ICs to engage in the joint venture of ASICs.
Now consider a viewpoint on semiconductor companies, starting with something like the Tektronix scenario. Tek essentially started an internal IC company because it already was a company that could use the parts. Turning that around, what if semiconductor companies would create Tektronix-like companies by identifying how ICs might best be used where they currently are not?
In other words, having the IC capability, a semiconductor company is enabled to consider IC-oriented technology it could develop to give spin-off ventures the needed advantages to successfully address their own markets. The original semiconductor company becomes a hub around which various IC-depending ventures proceed. Instead of waiting for someone else to find IC applications, semiconductor companies take the initiative of applying IC technology where it has new advantages, through spin-off ventures.
Tek did something like this with their bistable storage CRT technology. These are CRTs that are able to retain an image of a trace by storing it on the phosphor screen. This was developed to give analog scopes some of the capability we expect from DSOs before there were viable DSOs. The technology was used in various Tek storage scopes. However, with the capability in-house, Tek creativity was applied in asking how else might this technology be used.
The answer was the computer terminal. Before semiconductor RAM became large and cheap, Tek terminals were connected to mainframes and minicomputers alike. It was a major success and the technology had no competition. If I were in marketing research in a semiconductor company, I would be asking to what new uses the in-house technology could be put, and then explore new product concepts based on answers. This is where the line is crossed from being a pure IC maker to being a creative applier of whatever capabilities exist within the company.
When Tek expanded from its core technology of oscilloscopes into the computer industry, some within Tek thought it was expanding too quickly and that this would weaken its core strengths. For semiconductor companies, the same challenge exists, of not spreading resources too thinly that IC capabilities are compromised. Yet without expansion into IC-applying technology and markets, the company can only grow like a pumpkin in a jug to the shape of an IC company, and be no more than that.
Being an IC company is enough of a challenge, but part of that challenge is what to do with the IC capability. I am suggesting that new ideas in answer to this dilemma exist in encouraging thinking about IC technology application within IC companies. One way of expanding and minimizing risk is to form alliances with selected companies already in the application areas of technology so that more than IC profits can be the resulting benefit.
For instance, I just ran a series of articles on one possibility, the integrated Z meter. To my knowledge, none presently exist, though there is nothing about Z-meter circuitry that prevents a more complete integration. This is only one instance, and I do not suppose that I am uniquely creative in proposing possibilities. Smart people at workbenches in IC companies probably already have ideas. Some of these will turn out to be technically impractical, or address too obscure of a market, or be so intricate that an IC company cannot venture into it. Yet there are multiple possibilities within these bounds. I have several ideas of this kind and others must too. They offer IC companies an opportunity to take the initiative to grow beyond a supporting role in fulfillment of other people's ideas.
Do you have suggestions regarding the markets that semiconductor companies could either move into or form joint ventures to take advantage of?