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Is the PowerPC due for a second wind?

Freescale CEO Michel Mayer thinks so--and now he runs a chipmaker with the heft to see that vision through.

How can a company be just about everywhere, and yet nobody knows its name? Just ask Michel Mayer, chief executive of Freescale Semiconductor.

Mayer's $6 billion Austin, Texas-based company, a recent spin-off from Motorola, is one of the 10 largest microchip manufacturers in the world. When it comes to brand awareness, it's another story.

While the public may not have a clue, industry insiders are quite familiar with Freescale. The company's best-known client is Apple Computer, which is under contract to use Freescale chips to through the end of 2008. The company has about 10,000 other customers, including the top 10 automotive manufacturers.

We are most probably going to revitalize our PowerPC. I don't know if it's going to be called PowerPC.

Recently, Freescale signed a multiyear electronics design partnership with Cadence Design Systems and also acquired CommASIC, a fabless semiconductor company based in San Diego that specializes in combining multiple wireless networking technologies onto a single microprocessor.

CNET News.com sat down with Mayer to talk about Freescale's evolution, as well as the future of the PowerPC architecture and the company's growing role in creating embedded processors.

Q: Will Cadence be responsible for all the chips that Freescale produces from the PowerPC, all the way down to small embedded wireless radios?
Mayer: Yes, everything. Even analog.

How much more are you planning on streamlining?
Mayer: Cost savings are one element, but it's really more about being more effective. Our existing structure, which was dispersed, allowed the centralized little groups to make their own decisions in terms of design tool environments. We didn't think it was going to make it...if we were going to grow, we needed to have a stronger and more stable design tools platform.

Speaking of growth, talk about your acquisition of CommASIC. How will it help with your future wireless designs?
Mayer: It was important for us to acquire the capacity to include low-power wireless LAN in our designs because increasingly, mobile phones are going to be multimode devices. I mean, 4G (fourth-generation wireless) is really going to be full multimode. You'll be able to switch between your network, your carrier, Wi-Fi, voice over IP, Bluetooth--whatever. To prepare for that, we needed to have a low-power Wi-Fi implementation.

I've seen both sides of the Apple story because I sold the G5 to Steve (Jobs) the first time he wanted to move to Intel.

It does seem that the company is going through some sort of a transition.
Mayer: It's more of an evolution of existing businesses.

Some analysts compare Freescale to Texas Instruments because you both deal with a lot of analog designs. What is it that appeals to you about analog?
Mayer: I think analog is very important. Analog, as you know, is what is required to deal with anything that's not purely digital, and not a lot of things in the real world are purely digital.

Are there unexplored areas that you'd like to go into?
Mayer: We've opened the design and quality center in Nagoya, in the heart of the Japanese automotive valley.

Consumer electronics is another area of growth for us. We have started to take technology that we put into cars and brought them to other consumer devices. The technology that moves the seats in the car moves the autofocus on a Canon Digital Rebel. The little microcontrollers that deploy air bags now go into toasters, into fridges, doing little functions like that.

Then, of course, wireless outside of Motorola is a huge growth opportunity for us, so that's where our focus is right now.

What about on the desktop?
Mayer: Desktop is a very small piece of our business, and it's going away. Our only customer is Apple (for laptops), and they are switching to Intel sometime next year. We were not happy to lose a customer, but frankly, with all of the growth opportunities that we have in front of us, it was not a good use of our resources to try to defend half a percent market share, which is how much desktop we have against Intel.

OK, Intel has the PC, that's fine. There are so many opportunities outside the PC that it's much better using our resources to try to go into spaces where we are really leaders.

Innovation is moving away from the PC space, and it's moving to consumer electronics. It's moving to the game console. It's moving to cars. It's moving to phones. iPod, that's where innovation is. So desktop is not a market that we want to serve.

Weren't you there during the discussions when IBM convinced Apple to adopt the G5?
Mayer: In my previous job, I ran IBM's semiconductor business. So I've seen both sides of the Apple story, because I sold the G5 to Steve (Jobs) the first time he wanted to move to Intel.

Five years ago?
Mayer: Yeah, that's about right. So I sold the G5. First I told IBM that we needed to do it, and then I sold it to Apple that the G5 was good and it was going to be the follow-on of the PowerPC road map for the desktop. It worked pretty well. And then IBM decided not to take the G5 into the laptop and decided to really focus its chip business on the game consoles.

Because there is no innovation left on the PC?
Mayer: It's not that the PC is dead. It's a huge business.

We are most probably going to revitalize our PowerPC. I don't know if it's going to be called PowerPC. A lot of people have questions on the PowerPC architecture and what's going on. I think IBM and us need to make a very strong statement that, "Hey, a lot of applications are using that architecture, it's alive, it's there to last, don't get confused because there are many more PowerPC chips than IBM's Power architecture chips sold in the world."

Because people have that personal link to that PC, they tend to equate processing with PCs, and they don't realize that there are increasingly tens, if not hundreds, of processors that you use every day, and those things are quickly becoming much more powerful.

You're going to be shocked I'm sure, but the PowerPC drives the engine control, the power train application in some automobiles. And by next year, 50 percent of car (models) in the world will have PowerPCs.

That's a lot of processing power for fuel injection in a car. Does it really need a microprocessor like a PowerPC?
Mayer: Yes.

Why?
Mayer: Because you have hundreds of thousands of lines of code running on some car systems already. People don't realize how complex cars have become.

Name a car.
Mayer: The BMW 7 Series v6...it sits on the side of the six cylinders. Today, it is a 16-bit PowerPC chip.

And next year it'll be a 32-bit?
Mayer: 32-bit.

So right now, if I tore apart a BMW and took out all the silicon, how many Freescale chips would I find?
Mayer: 52 Freescale chips in both the 7 Series and the 5 series.

And they control??
Mayer: Air bag deployment, moving the seats, the power train, Telematics, OnStar, entertainment systems, the transmission...

So instead of sitting in front of your PC, you're actually driving your PC?
Mayer: Right.

Talk about spreading your wings and moving away from Motorola. Has that been beneficial for you, or has it been actually a challenge? Freescale is not a household name.
Mayer: Of course, Motorola is a very strong brand, and we are very proud of the Motorola heritage...Now that being said, we are not a consumer brand. We sell to people who design products...so for them, I really believe we are already a household name.