HP Slate 7 Tablet may mark beginning of consolidation amongst ARM fabless partners

Many were surprised when HP announced the Slate 7 at MWC a few days ago. After all, the much-publicised demise of the Touchpad and the subsequent mayhem (the death of WebOS being perhaps the most painful) that hit the company are still fresh in the minds of most analysts.

Yet, HP will go ahead with the launch of a super affordable Android-based tablet in April, one that, as far as we can see, looks little more than a rebadged version of countless white-labelled Android tablets (mostly from China) we’ve seen in a recent past.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is the fact that HP opted for a system-on-chip from a relatively unknown Chinese fabless semiconductor company called Rockchip. Until now, its products were present in mostly anonymous devices (perhaps the most well-known of them being the Archos Gamepad).

HP’s press release only states that it is a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 SoC clocked at 1.6GHz. But it didn’t mention anything about the GPU or the manufacturer. Until Techcrunch’s Chris Velazco went undercover and found out that Rockchip was the SoC purveyor (which leads us to believe that the SoC in the Slate 7 is the RK3066 with an ARM Mali 400 GPU solution).

HP therefore sidestepped Qualcomm (used in the TouchPad), Nvidia (used in countless tablets) or TI (used in the Nook or the Kindle Fire). It is therefore likely that the pace at which top mobile device makers (Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer) adopt generic Chinese SoC solutions ramps up.

The barriers to entry in the ARM ecosystem being quite low, this means that the sole differentiation at the entry level of the market is on price. The main building blocks of an ARM-based SoC, remaining the same, there’s only so much that small fabless companies can do to differentiate themselves from the rest of the competition.

It is therefore only a matter of time before consolidation happens in the market with some players exiting the market altogether or focusing exclusively on niche segments. We’ve seen it before a couple of decades ago when the x86 market went from being diverse to one with only two players in it; Transmeta, Cyrix, IDT, NexGen, Rise Technology died with Intel and AMD being the only remaining players.

How long will the process take? Well, a few mainstream players like ST-Ericsson and TI have already either announced or being rumoured to alter their SoC roadmaps. And there even might be a catalyst when Imagination Technologies (with MIPS) debuts new Aptiv products.