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Will Actel disappear as an fpga vendor?

The programmable logic market has always been a hard place to do business. The reason? It's dominated by two big companies, which means other competitors have to carve a specific niche for themselves.
Over the years, many companies – some big names – have tried the market and failed. Only one company – Actel – has stayed the pace, guided for most of that time by president and ceo John East.

Basically, fpga applications can be split into two sectors: datapath; and sense and control. Datapath applications – essentially communications – need density, speed and signal processing. These applications are largely served by sram based fpgas from the two market leaders. The other market sector is more interested in low power, reliability and security. Because the two camps are, more or less, mutually exclusive, the opportunities for companies other than the big two lie in the sense and control arena. It's a smaller market and the extent of the struggle can be seen from Actel's recent financial statements: its 2009 figures showed a loss of $46m from revenues of $190m.
East announced his retirement in February – he has been ceo since 1988 – and the search for his successor has continued since then. Whether the Actel board couldn't find the right person or whether the right person didn't want the job is open for discussion. But the search can how be put on hold as Actel has been bought by analogue specialist Microsemi for $430million in a cash deal.
The deal seems a bit of a strange at first sight, but there is common ground: Actel has pioneered mixed signal technology in fpgas and it has a strong position in the space and aerospace sectors. Microsemi, as an analogue company, will have technology useful in Actel's SmartFusion fpgas and is an existing supplier of discrete components into the mil/aero markets.
The big question for now is how easily Microsemi can digest Actel – or whether it will want to.

Graham Pitcher

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