Via aims processors at emerging markets

Microprocessors from Via Technologies Inc. have not been a big hit in the PC market, but emerging economies provide opportunities for the Taiwanese company to sell its chips in new types of computing and communications devices, company executives say.

Via's strategy is to design new types of computing platforms for emerging markets, Wenchi Chen, Via's CEO and president, told IDG News Service Monday. They may include devices that can withstand heat, dust and intermittent power supplies. "We want to take the x86 [processor] architecture into all kinds of applications," he said.

Via got into the x86 microprocessor business in 1999 after it purchased the Cyrix PC processor division of National Semiconductor Corp. and the Centaur microprocessor subsidiary of Integrated Device Technology Inc. But the company does not have many big design wins from the top PC makers.

"We believed there was demand for low-power, low-cost processors, and it has been tougher than we had originally anticipated, but now finally we think we have a clear space in the market," said Richard Brown, vice president of Via's corporate marketing division.

Via will still have to do battle with Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc., which are also eyeing emerging markets for their products. Intel has said it plans to launch its Community PC -- a rugged PC that runs on a car battery -- in India later this year.

Via will differentiate itself by offering components that consume less power, Brown said. In addition, Intel and AMD "are also going to be very careful in whether or not they cannibalize existing markets," he added.

About 1 billion people worldwide have access to computers and the Internet, according to Brown. Via's goal is to design devices for the next billion, who are less likely to own their computer and more likely to use it as a community service, he said. Since most of these users will be in rural areas, the devices will have to be able to withstand heat and dust and work when power supplies are less than adequate.

The PC market has already matured, Chen said, but there are new opportunities in markets where PCs are not so relevant. Users in China and India can leapfrog to technologies like thin clients because they don't already have large investments in PCs, he said.

Via announced on Monday that it is setting up an innovation center in Mumbai, India, where it will develop computing and communications products suited to the environmental challenges in developing markets.

It also introduced a reference design for the Via pc-1 PHD Appliance, where PHD stands for "power, heat and dust". Built around a specially designed C3 processor from Via, the device won't require a fan and can run on a car battery, Brown said.

Via hopes to co-brand the device with equipment vendors, using its Via pc-1 logo. "This [co-branding] gives us a huge opportunity to build up our brand in markets like India or Egypt or South America, where we actually have a strong chance," Brown said.

The company will support equipment makers by helping build an ecosystem of software developers, nongovernmental organizations and educational institutions.

Distributors and systems integrators in many countries want to get out of the PC business because profit margins are so thin, Brown said. Via hopes its new products will offer them an alternative.

It plans to continue selling its processors, chip sets and other components to large PC makers in developed markets. Much of the company's business today is still focused on chip sets that work with Intel and AMD processors.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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