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Nvidia snags fast-rising mobile chip maker

Icera's software-happy modems too tasty to resist

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Nvidia has made yet another move that proves it's dead serious about the mobile market, announcing plans to fork over $367m to acquire baseband-processor developer Icera of Bristol in the UK.

"This is a key step in Nvidia's plans to be a major player in the mobile computing revolution," said company president and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang in a statement announcing the deal.

Nvidia's senior vice president of it mobile business unit, Phil Carmack, was even more emphatic. "This is a significant step forward in Nvidia's strategy to be the processor company for the post-PC era," he wrote on the company blog. Those are Carmack's italics, by the way, not ours.

Icera's crown jewel is its Livanto ICE8060, a baseband chip that handles all modem functions in software in what Icera calls its DXP – deep execution processor – housed in a tiny 8-by-8mm package that scales by means of software upgrades from 7.2Mbps HSPA category 8 up to category 24 42Mbps HSPA+ and 50Mbps multimode LTE, according to company specs.

While Icera may not be as well known as, say, LTE stalwarts Qualcomm and ST-Ericsson, Carmack's post points to a year-old report by Strategy Analytics that says: "It appears that Icera will quickly emerge as the third most successful supplier of LTE basebands and chipsets, well ahead of Infineon, MediaTek, Broadcom, the Japanese suppliers and a host of start-ups."

Yes, "well ahead of Infineon" – the company that was acquired by Intel last August for $1.4bn, nearly four times what Nvidia is paying for Icera.

Nvidia also notes that Icera holds or has pending over 550 patents worldwide and that its gear has been approved by more than 50 carriers "across the globe".

Nvidia's dual-core, ARM Cortex-A9–based Tegra 2 – which the company modestly refers to as "the world's first mobile super chip" – is busily powering such top-end smartphones as the Motorola Atrix and LG G2x, plus tablets such as the Motorola Xoom and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.

The quad-core Tegra 3 – code-named "Project Kal-El" – is waiting in the wings, said to strut onto the stage late this summer with five times the performance of the Tegra 2. Three further Tegras are currently in Nvidia's roadmap: "Wayne" in 2012, "Logan" in 2013, and "Stark" in 2014, with that last little fellow scheduled to have 75 times the Tegra 2's zip.

With the addition of the Livanto ICE8060 – and, of course, its follow-ons – Nvidia will be poised to shop its wares to OEMs in a pre-configured pairing: Tegra CPU/GPU/video chips along with a tiny, low-power software-configurable baseband chip. We wouldn't be at all surprised to see the DXP technology make its way onto Tegra silicon at some point.

Or, as Nvidia put it in their announcement: "By offering the two main processors used in smartphones (the application processor and baseband processor), the combined company will help OEM customers both improve their time to market and deliver the requirements of next-generation mobile computing. Nvidia will also have approximately doubled its revenue opportunity within each device."

All for a mere $367m in cash in a deal that is expected to close in a month. Such a deal. ®

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