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There's a new Chipzilla in town: Samsung topples Intel to become largest chip maker

Semiconductor shortage helps cause reshuffle at the top

The semiconductor shortage helped smartphone and memory chips in 2021, and Samsung toppled Intel to become the world's largest chip company, according to Counterpoint Research.

Overall semiconductor revenue grew to $554.1bn in 2021, with 19 per cent growth coming from the memory and integrated circuit (IC) design sectors, the research outfit said in a study.

This was driven by demand for ICs in data centers, high-performance computing, autonomous vehicles, 5G infrastructure, crypto, gaming and growing advanced semiconductors in PCs, smartphones and other IoT devices, Akshara Bassi, research analyst at Counterpoint, told The Register.

As a result, Samsung's chip revenue totalled $81.3bn in 2021, up 30.5 per cent from 2020. The company last week reported that the memory unit in 2021 recorded the largest revenue growth of all business divisions, up 31 per cent compared to 2020, and said the rapid growth is expected to continue in 2022.

Intel's chip revenue was $79bn, growing by just 1.5 per cent, and losing the top spot to Samsung, according to Counterpoint. Intel reset priorities last year after Pat Gelsinger became CEO. The chip maker divested itself of SSD and NAND assets, and a sold factory in Dalian, China, to SK Hynix for $7bn in December.

Counterpoint's numbers do not include revenue from factories, which Intel is prioritizing after dumping the memory and NAND assets.

SK Hynix placed a distant third, with revenue of $37.1bn in 2021, growing by 36 per cent compared to 2020. The company recorded its highest revenue in history last year, and highlighted the success of 128-layer NAND flash products, which "succeeded in turning into a surplus in the third quarter of last year," the company said last week.

Micron placed fourth, with revenue of $30bn, growing 33 per cent compared to 2020. Mobile chip company Qualcomm was fifth, growing by 52 per cent.

"The market will continue to grow as demand for various applications, including ... electric vehicles, self-driving cars, smartphones, Arm PCs, custom silicon, and servers, increases semiconductor content per device," Bassi said.

The chip shortage had everyone clamoring for the same parts last year, and chip makers gained from the shortage, Brian Matas, vice president for market research at IC Insights, told The Register.

A shortage of materials added to the growing prices of chips of memory, CPUs and other chips, which helped the semiconductor companies pocket more revenue.

DRAM suppliers were especially caught short in capacity, though new and retrofitted factories are coming online in the second half of 2022, Matas said.

The unpredictable nature of calamities and markets remains a wild card for how the semiconductor market will play out this year, Counterpoint's Bassi said.

Micron and Samsung had to limit activities at its semiconductor sites in Xi'an, China, following a coronavirus outbreak in December. ®

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