Founded within a year of eachother in 1983/4, their respective fortunes have waxed and waned over the years. When one comes up the other goes down.
In the early '90s, Xilinx held a substantial lead but Altera started to claw that back and, by '97, had taken a narrow lead at $631 million revenues to Xilinx's $568 million.
Altera reigned until 2001 when Xilinx stormed back with revenues twice as large as Altera's.
Since then, Xilinx has held onto the lead but, last year, the gap narrowed significantly. Altera had $1.9 billion in revenue; Xilinx had $2.3 billion.
This year, Altera expects to be only 3 points of market share behind, says CEO John Daane
"Analysts expectations are that we'll come in with $2.2bn of revenues this year and Xilinx will come in at $2.35bn," Daane tells me.
What has helped Altera to close the gap is success at the 40nm node.
"At 40nm we have two thirds - 67% - of the market," says Daane, "we will be No.1 in the market in the next couple of years."
Whe I put this to Xilinx's CEO, Moshe Gavrielov, he responds: "They have been gaining market share because we slipped on 65nm with no high volume product and, on 40nm, they were out with product ahead of us, but we have the best product with the most applications on 28nm, so the market share situation will swing back to us. We were definitely the first to tape out on 28nm. We've taped out six devices. We're supplying customers broadly. We've sold thousands of 28nm devices to over 50 customers. At the end of our financial year in March 2012 we'll have shipped several tens of millions of dollars worth."
Daane says Altera had $2 million worth of sales on 28nm in Q3 2011.
So the 25 year-long struggle between the two companies will depend, for the first part of this decade, on their execution at 28nm.
And with Xilinx, a long-time UMC customer, moving to TSMC for the 28nm node, both will be using the same foundry. But not the same process.
"They went with HP and LP (TSMC's high power and low power processes). We worked on developing HPL, a derivation of HP with the same performance but lower power. It will broaden our applicability in the market," says Gavrielov.
This is going to be interesting.