There were two complementary pieces of news last week – that ST had signed Samsung as a foundry for FD-SOI and that ST dropped out of the top ten.
To succeed in the the chip industry you need to be brave. ST used to be a brave company – investing in MPEG2 and MEMS years ahead of the market, fighting its way into the cut-throat memory market, competing with the best in the world for mobile markets.
But somewhere along the line ST stopped being brave. The most obvious sign was not equipping the Catania fab – from that moment on ST was never going to have the capacity to grow rapidly.
ST-Ericsson died for not having leading edge capacity. The memory business was shuffled off to Micron. ST turned in on itself retreating to safe, profitable, slow-growth, behind-the-leading-edge product areas.
It’s a respectable strategy, many people in Europe think it’s the right strategy for European companies, it’s a strategy that the financial community support, but it’s a strategy which means the companies which follow it inevitably slip down the league table of leading companies, unable to generate the funds to invest in new generations of technology – becoming safe, predictable and timid.
Some would say that safe predictable and timid is OK for Europe. Others say that Europe should do better than that with its distinguished scientific history and its intellectual strengths.
If ST had gone ahead and equipped Catania it would have had enough capacity of its own to bring FD-SOI to market and start generating growth and wealth to re-invest in the future. It didn’t, so now ST must seek capacity elsewhere.
That’s not ideal but it’s OK. If the market recognises the benefits of FD-SOI then ST will start to grow again and Europe will have a technology champion able to compete with the best in the world.
Such a strategy needs brave leaders and, luckily, Europe has a brave politician in Neelie Kroes and a brave technologist in Jean-Marc Chery.