Freescale Needs to Divide to Conquer

Freescale should get ready for change. I visited the Austin-based chip maker yesterday to talk about wireless and networking chips as well as broad trends in the industry, and walked away realizing that the firm needs to split itself up in order to survive.

The company has some very cool technology — especially around its multicore processors for embedded systems such as printers, storage arrays and routers — and a huge base of users for its Power architecture. But it has too many areas of focus. In the next two years, it’s unlikely that the company will have the same combination of businesses it has today.

Specialization is key in the chip-making industry because it allows a company to allocate its R&D more effectively, optimize manufacturing processes and generally improve profits. Freescale, which makes chips for automobiles, RFID systems, cell phones, base stations, networking equipment and industrial applications, designs both high-volume chips at advanced process nodes and low-volume chips that require a lot of manufacturing tweaks.

It’s likely that Freescale’s private equity owners will divide the company along the lines the firm established late last year: networking and multimedia; microcontrollers; cellular; and RF, sensors and analog. Each of the divisions made more than $1 billion in 2007 and could be combined with similar divisions at other firms such as Infineon, Broadcom, STMicroelectronics or even Intersil. Earlier this year, Freescale got a new CEO (from Intersil) with M&A experience, so change is certainly in the air.