Generally, when a company boasts in a press release that it has been chosen to supply a part for some big project, I crumple it up and aim for the basket. It was different, though, when ST Microelectronics, a huge European chipmaker, boasted of having supplied not just any part, but an absolutely critical one, and not just for any project, but for the Wii—Nintendo's superhot game console.
ST told me that without its small, cheap, yet effective 3-dimensional motion sensor, the Wii would not have been practical. What made the story even more interesting was the underdog angle. ST had scored big, despite its rather late entry into quite a different game—the technology known as MEMS, short for micro-electro-mechanical systems. This is the art by which standard photolithographic techniques carve silicon into tiny intricate parts in real, live machines.
ST's chip was the core of the Wii, said Benedetto Vigna, head of the company's MEMS division, in an interview at IEEE Spectrum's New York offices. Asked how come his company alone had been able to supply a 3-D accelerometer with the right performance specifications, at the low, low price of US $3, Vigna said it was "just luck." Other firms experienced in 2-dimensional sensors hadn't sensed the market possibilities for the more complex 3-D kind, he said, and so ST had gotten the jump on them. When ST met up with Nintendo and learned that it was thinking along the same lines, the two companies, as Vigna put it, "got married."
Bigamously, it seems. A few days after my profile of Vigna went live on this site, Howard Wisniowski, a spokesman for Analog Devices Inc., of Norwood, Mass., called to tell me that it was ADI that had supplied the 3-dimensional accelerometer in the Wii's main controller. ST, he added, had merely provided the sensor in the secondary, "nunchuk" controller. It's secondary because most games now available don't even use it. Indeed, I'd played the baseball, tennis, and bowling games myself, all without having had recourse to the nunchuk.
No journalist likes to admit that he has been naïve. In my own defense, I will however note that company representatives do not normally visit one in one's office, eat one's take-out, and pull one's leg on so straightforward a matter as a contract to supply a part. At least, not when they know that their competitors will surely spot the resulting error and rush to expose it.
Indeed, the ADI spokesman was more than pleased to put me in touch with Richard Mannherz, ADI's marketing manager for micromachine products. Mannherz said he'd laughed at a sentence of mine that cited Vigna's success with the Wii as a big reason why ST put him in charge of its MEMS product division.
"Promoted?" he snorted. "Even though he lost the main socket?"
He was talking about the main controller, which he argued was a more desirable contract than that for the nunchuk because more games require it, and so more controllers are sold in the aftermarket. "I was in New York City at Christmas," Mannhertz said, "doing market research on the availability of the Wii, and I saw 'Toys R Us' had three bins, one for the traditional [pre-Wii] Nintendo controller, another for the main Wii controller, and another for the nunchuk. The classic controller was full, the one for nunchuk was half full, the one for the main controller was empty."
"Look, it was always unlikely that Nintendo would choose one company to do them both," he continued. "It had to do an effective job of managing supply risk." Sony learned that lesson the hard way before Christmas, when shortfalls in its Blu-ray diodes kept it from supplying enough PlayStation 3's to meet demand.
Michael Markowitz, a spokesman for ST Microelectronics admitted as much in an email: "The accelerometers in the remote and nunchuk are essentially interchangeable; like many manufacturers, Nintendo prefers to have multiple sources of supply as a sort of insurance policy against problems at any one source."
Now he tells me.
When I called him up, Markowitz told me that Vigna was traveling and unavailable for comment. So I put the question to him: if the two chips were interchangeable, then why had the ADI chip been chosen for use in the main controller? "We would argue that both companies came out very well," he replied.
Why had he and Vigna characterized the ST chip as the "core" of the Wii, essential to its success? "I would say our answers were not misleading; they were precisely accurate. If you didn't do external research to find out about Analog, it's not our job."
Okay, okay, so I screwed up: I trusted these guys, and they hornswoggled me. In the old days, my only response would have been to say, "fool me once, shame on you." Nowadays, I have more options. I can, for instance, write this blog.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.