The Austrian-American firm Ams-Taos in 2012 was by a wide stretch the No. 1 maker of light and proximity sensors used primarily in mobile handsets to respond to changing light and environmental stimuli, according to a new MEMS & Sensors report on the subject from IHS Inc., a leading global source of critical information and insight.
Ams-Taos was the undisputed leader in the global light sensor market with 37 percent share of revenue in 2012 after annual growth last year of 29 percent. Its 2012 takings of $201.4 million positioned the manufacturer well ahead of the second-ranked player by a comfortable margin of more than $100 million.
Overall, the Top 10 suppliers for light sensors had combined revenue of $508.2 million out of the industry total of $546.4 million. The whopping 93 percent share claimed by the Top 10 last year out of the total market was similar in scale to that of 2011, when the Top 10 had been responsible for $364.6 million out of industry takings of $388.2 million.
The light and proximity sensors made by suppliers here are of three types: ambient light sensors (ALS) that measure the intensity of the surrounding light enveloping a cellphone or tablet to adjust screen brightness and save battery power; RGB sensors that gauge a room’s color temperature via the red, green and blue wavelengths of light to help correct white balance in the device display; and proximity sensors that disable a handset’s touch screen when it is held close to the head, in order to avoid unwanted input, and also to turn off the light in the display to save battery power.
Aside from their most conspicuous use in wireless communications typified by handsets and tablets, light sensors are utilized in various other applications. These include consumer electronics and data processing for devices like televisions, laptops and PC tablets; in the industrial market for home automation, medical electronics and general lighting; and in the automotive space for vehicle displays and car functionalities like rain sensors.
Ams-Taos owes part of its success to the supplier’s capability to extract a price premium for its ambient light sensor (ALS) product, bucking the prevailing trend in the market. Its top customers in 2012 included Apple, to which it sold ALS as well as RGB/proximity sensors for the iPhone 4; Samsung, also for ALS and other sensors; and important Chinese handset manufacturers like ZTE and Huawei Technologies.
While Apple is a major customer, Ams-Taos has been broadening its customer base since 2010 to reduce its reliance on Apple. As a result, Apple’s revenue share of the Ams-Taos business was at about 45 percent in 2012, down from a high of 56 percent in 2010.
At No. 2 was Capella Microsystems of Taiwan with $75.3 million, or 14 percent share. Its revenue growth of more than 70 percent was especially impressive, considering that the company has only about 70 employees and focuses on mass-display markets because of limited resources. Among its major customers are Samsung, Huawei and HTC from Taiwan.
In third place was Avago Technologies, a global company with sensor operations in Singapore. Avago also enjoyed growth rivaling Capella’s for its revenue to reach $52.1 million, equivalent to 9 percent share. Chinese handset makers are Avago’s primary clientele, but the company also often acts as a second source for other brands, like Finland’s Nokia. LG and Samsung are other customers.
Rounding out the Top 5 were Sharp from Japan with $51.6 million or 10 percent share; and Heptagon of Singapore with $33.3 million or 7 percent share.
Sharp has had some financial problems as a company, but it was the first to market with ALS, proximity and infrared (IR) light-emitting diodes in a single package, thus securing a good win with Samsung. In September, Sharp will likely be one of the first two companies—along with Capella—to release a combination RGB, proximity and IR sensor with a gesture solution for handsets that can follow advanced hand and gesture motions. Such a solution could find good traction with Chinese handset makers as well as Samsung, which has been deploying gesture functionality in its Galaxy line of smartphones.
Heptagon, meanwhile, has enjoyed a relationship with Apple since 2011 and supplies the custom analog proximity and IR light-emitting-diode sensor for the iPhone 5.
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