Image sensors have hugely benefited from Apple’s avant-garde strategy

Every year, at the end of September, Apple executives deliver their annual keynotes. At the time of writing this article the details are not known, but Yole Développement has monitored Apple’s strategy throughout its existence, and Yole turns 20 years old this month. That – and the fact that this week Yole Développement releases its “Status of the CMOS Image Sensor industry 2018” report – makes it the perfect time to reflect on the influence the Cupertino-based company has had on imaging.

20 years ago imaging was in the middle of a huge transition from film-based photography towards digital. This huge shift was made possible thank to the use of charge-coupled device (CCD) technology. Also, because computers had all been connected with the internet, consumers were able to store and share the images among them. Imaging was experiencing its first disruption mostly thanks to the internet boom.

YD18035 Status CIS 2018 article 1

(Source: Status of the CMOS Image Sensor Industry 2018 – September 2018)

Then the bubble burst. Mobile phones started to integrate cameras. This was Nokia’s golden age, when images were of poor quality because the technology used was derived from web cameras, so-called CMOS technology. CMOS is a logic circuit technology and it was possible to manufacture huge volumes at low cost if one could accept the low image quality standards. This all came to an end again with the great recession of 2007.

Suddenly, a new device had appeared on the market: Apple’s iPhone. Again imaging transitioned dramatically. CMOS was not good enough for the smartphone era and had to be adapted to the “creative people” Apple was targeting. A complete industry ecosystem developed around CMOS Image sensor (CIS) technology. This was the time of the great convergence, where a single device would do the job of a mobile phone, a digital assistant, a portable media player, a digital camera, and would be the first to offer real mobile internet connectivity with a brand new user interface: the touch screen.

The Apple iPhone has had a tremendous effect on the semiconductor industry, and on imaging in particular. It offered an opportunity for its main supplier, Sony, to reach new highs in the CIS process, building on its early advances in high-end digital photography. CIS is a technology variant which is supposedly taking the best of both worlds, the standardization of CMOS, with a few additional steps that allow for a good image quality. In the end CIS went from a niche to the avant-garde of semiconductor innovation.
Now, it is standard for CIS to use 3D stacking manufacturing. The latest products from Sony and Samsung are a triple stack combination of image sensor, memory and logic circuits. Image sensors are probably the most complex semiconductor devices currently serving the consumer markets. Top-end Smartphones integrate up to four cameras, with more or less two on either side of the phone. With the multiplying factor of stacking technology, the silicon content is huge. Last year the CIS industry grew 20%. We are now in the middle of a golden age for the CIS industry.

YD18035 Status CIS 2018 article 2(Source: Status of the CMOS Image Sensor Industry 2018 – September 2018)


As the smartphone industry itself reaches a plateau, it is the perfect time for Apple to bring to market a new user interface based on 3D sensing CIS. It’s therefore not a surprise if this year’s keynote expands on the ideas presented in the iPhone X one year ago. The future is definitely in the 3D touchless interactions demonstrated last year, first for biometric identifications, but not just that. Animojis, avatars and augmented reality filters are at the center of the new experience. All other smartphone producers are racing to match the functionality, and it will probably take another year before they do. Announcements from Xiomi, Oppo and Vivo have all indicated that the Chinese companies are particularly keen to join Apple on the 3D sensing strategy.

We are entering a new cycle of interactive devices. Smartphones are just one aspect to it. At Yole Développement we expect it will have deep impacts on the electronic industry more generally. It will give a new boost to consumer markets for smart assistants, smart home devices and consumer robotics, and possibly wearables. More importantly, the technology will have also deep implications in the security and automotive industries. This is part of the new paradigm shift toward sensing, and it is interesting to notice that Apple was the innovator in both previous shifts. Its shareholders have just celebrated Apple’s stock market value reaching $1 trillion, and there are marketing and technological reasons for this. Yole Développment will make sure to continue explaining such reasons, hopefully for another 20 years.



Photo PierreCambou YOLE 2018Pierre Cambou is Yole Développement lead analyst for Imaging since 2014. He is part of the Photonics, Sensing and Display team. He has been part of the imaging industry since 1999 by holding several positions at Thomson TCS, which became Atmel Grenoble in 2001 and e2v Semiconductors in 2006 (now Teledyne e2v). In 2012 he founded Vence Innovation (now Irlynx) to bring to market an infrared sensor technology for smart environments and interactions. Pierre holds an MSc from UTC Compiegne and Virginia Tech and graduated from GEM MBA in 2011.


Source:   Yole Développement



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