As a brand, Marvell Technology Group is little known to the general public. Yet if you own a hard drive, odds are better than even that it has a Marvell chip in its interface. In fact Marvell is a key supplier of many semiconductor devices that go into cell phones, wireless and hardwired networking equipment, and printers.
Marvell executives have been talking about tablet computers built around their chips for a while. Yet while they are willing to talk about the superiority of their technology solutions, they often don't say who their OEM partners are, much less pre-announce the end products. Now, however, we are beginning to see the veil of secrecy lift. Most notably we have an announcement of a new eReader by Hawang and the adoption of the Marvell platform for One Laptop Per Child.
Within a few years China will be the biggest national market for both smartphones and tablet computers. Future smartphones in China means OPhones, and Marvell is dominating in design wins for OPhones. For tablets Marvell's design platform is called Moby. For One Laptop Per Child the result would cost in the range of $100. Commercial products will have many variable in their end price, notably the size of the screen and whether it is grayscale like a Kindle or color like an iPad.
In between smartphones and tablets in size are book readers. Hawang has been producing eReaders for the Chinese market since 2008. The Marvell based model is due out by September. According to Hawang it offers "better performance at a better price ... true mass market pricing." This is possible because of Marvell's intellectual property and ability to put many functions on a single chip. Notably this single chip solution (SoC - System on a Chip) includes an integrated e-Paper Display (EPD) controller. It can display standard pdf documents and requires very little power.
Marvell's chips can include application processing, digital signal processing, video processing, and wireless technologies like cell phone modems, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Everything needed for tablet computing.
The iPad tablet computer is a nifty device. We know Apple is famous for its high markups, so there is already room for iPad price drops. But the average American employee cannot afford an iPad (it represents a week's take home pay), much less the average Chinese or developing nation employee. Give them the functional equivalent at $100 to $200, however, and my guess is they will snap up tablets. With the kinds of volumes we are looking at in the China market alone, their should still be reasonable profit margins for Marvell and its OEM partners.
I expect we will see OEM announcements of tablets that are based on Marvell chips as we progress through the year.
Keep in mind that this is a very competitive market. In addition to Apple's internally developed chips (which almost certainly won't be sold to OEMs), top competitors include Broadcom, Qualcomm (Snapdragon chips), Intel, TI, and Freescale.
One Laptop Per Child's Next Move [New York Times, May 27. 2010]
Marvell and Hawang E-Reader [Marvell release June 1, 2010]
One Laptop Per Child and Marvell Join Forces [Marvell release May 27, 2010]
Marvell Moby Technology site
Marvell fiscal Q2 2010 results release