If you own a hard drive, odds are better than even that it has a Marvell Technology Group chip running it. In fact Marvell is a key supplier of many semiconductor devices that go into cell phones, wireless and hardwired networking equipment, and printers.
When Marvell's stock price began to slump yesterday (it closed Monday at $17.21, closed Tuesday at $16.89, down almost 2%), on a day the rest of the market was booming upward, I figured it was because of concerns about the hard disk drive (HDD) business. Reports from the field are that notebook sales are off, as 2 million consumers a month buy iPad tablets instead of refreshing their older notebooks. Less notebook computers means less hard drives, and PC sales in general have not been robust so far this year.
But no, a rumor was floating around, apparently originating with a noted Wall Street analyst, Ashok Kumar of Rodman & Renshaw, that RIM had dumped MRVL for TI for its processor for the PlayBook tablet computer. The rumor made some sense but had some obvious problems too. All stories I found on the net had the same origin, but many managed to deviate from the original, one even calling the RIM PlayBook the BlackPad (RIM is best known for its BlackBerry devices).
Executives of listed corporations are not supposed to give individual analysts market moving news. They are supposed to give all analysts and investors any market-moving news at the same time, usually by a press release or a public conference call. But analysts do all kinds of things to try to figure out what is going to happen before it is announced. I know I do. When I heard the RIM PlayBook announced, I looked to see who made the processor. No answer, but it was an ARM-based processor. As a Marvell investor I hoped my company would have a win, and many other commentators thought that was a good guess.
But RIM and their partners kept the design a secret, so in fact no one should have assumed Marvell won design-in. There are lots of uber-competent ARM-based processor makers to choose from.
So far there has been no confirmation from Marvell, RIM, or TI of the story. Which means it may not be true. Analysts like to have sources in or near companies. We like to ask questions to one company that will give us insight into the financial future of other companies. TI may very well have a design win at RIM, but it may not have ever been a socket Marvell had already won.
Let's look at the rumor as stated. The PlayBook release has been delayed; that much is known true. That would mean there are development problems. Kumar is alleged to have said the QNX OS for the device had problems, and the Marvell Armada chip for the device had bugs.
Let's see, Marvell chips work fine on BlackBerry phones already, and they work fine on Android phones. So was this a new, as yet untested chip that was buggy? Or was it just hard to integrate with the new QNX OS system? That is a classic engineering problem, with the software guys blaming hardware, and the hardware guys blaming software. If there was a Marvell chip screw up, was it really the chip, or was the incompetence on the RIM team? And why would a TI chip, also based on the same ARM design, work right off with QNX? Is it easier to fix known, discovered bugs, or to start over with a new chip? Usually, it is easier to fix the known bugs. And usually you don't change the processor, because that would require a lot more work than changing the OS to work around the processor's capabilities.
One way a possibly partly true, but obviously flawed, rumor can happen is through the third party. TI guy says to a friend, we got a RIM contract! Friend digs deeper, just a purely tech conversation, and speculation is RIM had some problem with QNX, and Marvell was the team to beat. By the time Friend, who is a regular supplier of tech information, talks to Kumar, the story makes sense, but may not be factually based. Kumar tries to verify the story, but if RIM, TI, or MRVL tells him, they are violating confidentiality contracts and SEC rules, so they don't comment. Kumar goes with his story. If he's right, he's a genius. If he is wrong, the squirrels will forget it soon enough.
At some point an official announcement may be made. Other than that, I'll have to wait until one of my friends gets a PlayBook and pops it open to see what chips are inside.
My Marvell Technology (MRVL) page
Marvell fiscal Q2 2010 results release