EL SEGUNDO, CA -- Apple Inc.'s tremendously influential iPhone helped spark the market for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) microphones to new heights, causing MEMS microphone shipments to nearly quintuple in just three short years.
Shipments of MEMS microphones reached an estimated 2.06 billion units in 2012, up by a factor of 4.8 from 432.9 million units in 2009. according to an IHS iSuppli MEMS Market Brief from information and analytics provider IHS (NYSE: IHS).
"While MEMS microphones have been around for many years, 2009 marked an important milestone when Apple started to buy MEMS microphones for the iPod nano 5, and more importantly, for the iPhone 4," said Jérémie Bouchaud, director and senior principal analyst for MEMS & sensors at IHS. "With Apple playing a huge role, the MEMS microphone market turned up the volume dramatically."
Following the design win with Apple, global MEMS microphone shipments rose 696.4 million units in 2010, and then surged to 1.3 billion units the following year, as shown in the figure attached. Apple's share of MEMS microphone consumption shipments rose from just 6.2 percent in 2009 to an outsized 30.8 percent in 2012.
MEMS Microphones Multiply in Mobile Market
One of the great success stories in the MEMS field, silicon microphones have found their use broadening over the years in what has become a fast-growing market. While a smartphone or feature phone may need one accelerometer, compass and gyroscope each, two MEMS microphones for a smartphone is typical—up from just one microphone two years ago. Even more remarkable, handset suppliers are now considering the use of three or more MEMS microphones for additional benefits, such as greater support for noise suppression as well as HD-quality audio recording for videos.
The emphasis on clearer sound is much more pronounced today, especially because handsets have become versatile tools for other tasks, such as listening to music or recording video, in addition to their original purpose for making phone calls. Acoustics, in fact, remains one of the few ways in which handset manufacturers can differentiate their phones. For instance, the new Nokia Lumia smartphone touts its audio performance and high-quality recording as an important feature setting the handset apart from competitors. And in a high-profile move a year ago, Apple introduced its Siri voice command feature in the iPhone 4S that was then carried over to the iPhone 5 and included in other Apple products, such as the fifth-generation iPod touch music player and the iPad fourth-generation tablet.
The voice command in Siri, in particular, was a breakthrough that held significant implications for MEMS. While voice command has been around for more than 10 years, Siri demonstrated the impressive functionality that could be achieved by multiple MEMS microphones featuring a lower signal-to-noise ratio.
The inclusion of more microphones in handsets has also improved audio for video recording in cellphones.
The iPhone 4 and 4S had two microphones from Knowles and AAC had been implemented on the side of the display. These worked great for calls and voice commands, but their placement was not ideal for recording the sound of the video taken with the main camera on the back of the phone.
The iPhone 5 still has the two microphones from Knowles and AAC but adds a high-performance MEMS microphone from Analog Devices on the back of the phone for video recording.
MEMS Microphones Stay in the Money
In a clear illustration of the high value of the MEMS microphone space, the fast adoption of MEMS microphones has come about without a corresponding price reduction of the device, defying a trend that usually occurs in fast-growing applications for the consumer and mobile markets.
Unlike accelerometers, the price of MEMS microphones has held up, mainly because the high-end segment—typified by the likes of Apple and Nokia handsets—is not purely driven by price. Apple, for instance, pays anywhere from three to four times more than its competitors to secure performance-oriented MEMS microphones, helping to stabilize pricing for MEMS microphones as a whole.
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