Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Top ten product segments for 2006


Bill McLean at IC Insights has released his forecast of the top 10 fastest-growing products for 2006, and leading the way is the lowly comparator, with a stunning 37% growth.

All the figures show that this was a good year, especially if you were in analogue devices, with 5 out of ten, and even for DRAM.

The DRAM market is forecast to jump 27%, and rank #3 in the survey. This follows a 5% fall in 2005. Two other memory segments, EEPROM/Other (#4, 25%) and ROM (#6, 22%), are expected to grow surprisingly well. IC Insights believes that new video games and gaming consoles such as the PS3 and Xbox 360 contributed to some of the forecast growth.

In total, 18 product categories area forecast to outpace the 8% growth of the total IC market in 2006, another 5 categories are expected to show positive but slower growth than the overall IC market, and 7 product categories are forecast to show negative market growth.

So this was a good year - remember that! It didn't feel too much like the top of the cycle, but here's to continuing growth in 2007!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sony losing money on each PS3 - iSuppli details

Now, that isn't news, but the teardown by market research company iSuppli shows just how much money it's losing.

The combined materials and manufacturing cost of the PlayStation 3 is $805.85 for the model equipped with a 20Gbyte Hard Disk Drive (HDD), and $840.35 for the 60Gbyte HDD version, according to iSuppli’s Teardown Analysis service’s preliminary estimate of expenses in the fourth quarter. This total doesn’t include additional costs for elements including the controller, cables and packaging.

At these costs, Sony is taking a considerable loss on each PlayStation 3 sold. Materials and manufacturing costs for the 20Gbyte model exceed the suggested retail price of $499 by a total of $306.85, iSuppli’s Teardown Analysis service estimates. For the 60Gbyte version, costs exceed the $599 price by $241.35.

Ouch! It needs to get the consoles out so that it can sell the games to make that money back!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Spammers target Patriot Scientific

Spam e-mailers have targeted Patriot Scientific, which has a deal on the Charles Moore patent pool. The spam emails highlight the deals signed by Intel and AMD to license the patent pool.
The Moore Microprocessor Patent (MMP) portfolio is named after Charles Moore, the inventor of the FORTH programming language, rather than Gordon Moore of Intel. While some of the first RISC processor patents come to an end this year, the Moore patents date from 1989 and will run until 2012 at the earliest.
Although they have been around for over 15 years, the Moore patents have had a chequered history. Up until last year there was a dispute on who owned them – a company called the TPL Group in Cupertino, California, where Moore is chief technology officer, or Patriot Scientific in Carlsbad, California.
That was resolved last June, when the two agreed to co-operate, and since then TPL has been marketing the portfolio through its subsidiary Alliacense. These have been taken up by companies such as Intel and AMD, as well as Hewlett Packard, Casio and in early June, Sony.
"Patriot Scientific has undergone tremendous positive change in the last year," said David Pohl, Patriot Scientific chairman and CEO. "The shift away from developing and marketing our own Ignite microprocessor to focus primarily on revenue from the licensing of our patent portfolio has bolstered the financial strength of the company. We are excited about the next phase of our plan that has already begun in which we are evaluating opportunities to diversify our revenue stream through possible joint ventures or acquisitions, all with the goal of increasing shareholder value."
Companies such as ARM and Tensilica are less enthusiastic. “It’s a very particular form of high speed clocks which people have said are very rarely used in actual designs,” said Chris Rowen, CEO of Tensilica and one of the founders of MIPS Technologies who worked on the original RISC technology at Stanford University. “I don’t think these patents are very fundamental at all.”
“We spent a lot of effort looking at the patents and we are quite happy that we don’t infringe,” said Mike Muller, chief technology officer and one of the founders of processor designer ARM.
But the spam e-mails are a classic pump-and-dump, where existing shareholders are trying to shift shares that are usually worthless by increasing the publicity around the company. Although the shares stand at $0.71, the company saw an income of $6m last quarter and income of $28m last year. So it seems an odd candidate for the pump-and-dump.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Can you hear Infineon rain on Akustica's parade?


Infineon has launched a microphone based on micro-machined silicon technology that will directly challenge US startup Akustica, which holds some fundamental patents licensed from Carnegie Mellon university. The startup recently saw its parts shipping in laptops from Fujitsu and a deal with Ricoh, but with Infineon now in the market with strong links to automotive manufacturers and high volume manufacturing, the smaller company may struggle. Unless of course it goes for the legal route, and the Akustica management are convinced they have a fundamental position.
The Infineon Silicon Microphone consists of two chips combined in a single package. The MEMS chip is a capacitor made up of a stiff and perforated backplate and a flexible membrane on a silicon substrate and transfers the sound waves into capacity variations. The ASIC chip converts the capacity variations into an electrical signal.
The new silicon MEMS microphone that is much more heat-resistant and rugged than the typical microphones used today, which are based on electret condenser microphone (ECM) technology. The silicon MEMS microphone can withstand temperatures of up to 260 C and is much more immune to vibrations and shocks, so it can be easily soldered onto any standard PCB and is ideally suited to use on fully automated production lines common to mass market consumer products. A 1.5 to 3.3V power supply slashes the miniature microphone's power consumption to about one third (70 µA) that of ECM microphones.
Silicon MEMS microphones can be used in anything from new mobile handset and headset models, to consumer electronics and notebook applications, medical systems, such as hearing aids, and even for such automotive applications as hands-free phones. Several identical individual microphones can easily be configured to form the arrays for directional microphones, as the conformance of silicon microphones can be ensured and variations over time remain low.
“We can even envision using these microphones in industrial applications as acoustic sensors to monitor machinery for example,” says Peter Schiefer, head of the Discrete Semiconductors business unit at the Automotive, Industrial and Multimarket business group of Infineon Technologies.
Market researcher firm Wicht Technology Consulting (WTC) estimates that the market for silicon microphones will grow from $56m in 2005 to $680m in 2010.

The microphone has a signal-to-noise ratio (59dB(A)) and high sensitivity (10mV/Pa).

Battery powered radar system


Strange it may seem, but a portable, battery-powered radar system is being commercialised by Cambridge Consultants. The Prism 200 operates up to 20m through walls to show what people are doing the other side, and of course has had great interest from the police, military and the emergency services.
The nice touch is the interface, which strips out reflections and extraneous info to show the 3D movement of the people.
But, I do have to ask, why in the long term surveillance video below does it look like the poor engineers at Cambridge Consultants work in a prison? The public areas of the building are very nice - is this the punishment wing?

AMD signs up for OpenFPGA

AMD has made what might seem a strange move to back the OpenFPGA community developing high performance computing systems on FPGAs. Companies such as Nallatech, Celoxica and Cray, along with research labs such as GE Research, Oak Ridge National Labs and Sandia National Labs are developing ways to use reconfigure FPGAs devices to run algorithms directly (and much faster), rather than having to translate these to C code and run them on slower processors.
But the deal is much more about interconnect – the Torrenza initiative announced in June is about connecting up the AMD processors to other processors and to co-processors, such as FPGAs, via the Hypertransport interconnect. The new generation of FPGAs from Xilinx (Virtex 5 LXT) and Altera (expect a Stratix 3 GX) will have high speed, multi-gigabit interfaces on them that will help this along.
AMD also announced, in conjunction with the Computer Architecture Group at the University of Mannheim in Germany, the creation of the Mannheim Center of Excellence (COE), for research for HyperTransport technology. As the only current academic licensee of coherent HyperTransport (cHT), the research at the Mannheim COE is expected to directly benefit the academic community and the development of next-generation technology that leverages HyperTransport. Early results from the Mannheim COE research include the release of an HTX board for universities and companies that research compute-intensive testing and design applications.
“These activities in support of Torrenza represent fresh thinking in the application of open standards in creating collaborative research environments that can directly benefit customers,” said Michael Goddard, director of Performance Computing at AMD. “Academic customers are already seeing the results of the HyperTransport expertise the Mannheim COE can deliver, while OpenFPGA is leveraging best practices to provide a programming model for FPGAs, one of the co-processing technologies embraced by Torrenza. Ultimately, these efforts will further the adoption of HyperTransport technology and computing based on Direct Connect Architecture, offering new levels of stability and upgradeability in open environments such as AMD64.”

Monday, November 13, 2006

PS3 launch descends into farce


International arbitrage has really had an effect on the launch of the Sony PlayStation3, and not for the stunning leading edge technology. Unfortunately it is not the Cell processor or the graphics that has people lining up to buy, but the opportunity to sell the consoles on quick for large amounts of money.
From reports on the Kotaku gamers site, the vast majority of people queuing up for the first consoles yesterday were poor Chinese who were just buying the consoles for the boss who are today selling them on ebay for $1000 to $2000! The key was that the majority of people buying were not buying games (and didn't speak Japanese!)
All very sad, but a classic result of demand and supply when Japan had just 80,000 units to sell, and these can be re-sold across the wolrd to enthusiasts. No doubt that will get itself sorted out when more supplies come in, but there is likely to be a repeat for both the US launch in a few weeks and European launch in March.
For a breakdown of the PS3, have a look at the Japanese PC Watch site.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

60GHz wireless in the home confusion

Be afraid, be very afraid!
The new WirelessHD special interest group is looking to replace the expensive HDMI cables that connect HDTV set top boxes and HD DVD/Blu Ray players to your lovely high def TV.
It is proposing yet another wireless technology, this time based on a 60GHz (yes, you heard right - that's radar) technology developed by US startup SiBeam. The fact that they can do it in CMOS (although whether that is pure standard CMOS remains to be seen) is impressive and *could* make it cost effective.
However, there are other technologies that are lower frequency and high enough performance for this application, such as UltraWideBand. Companies such as Staccato Communications, Artimi and Pulse Link have developed single chips in CMOS for UWB at much lower frequencies (and therefore lower power) for exactly this. Another UWB chip designer, Tzero Technologies, teamed up with Analog Devices on silicon for Wireless HDMI, based on standards developed by Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, and Sony in July of 2003.
So in short we have a ghastly mess. While there are three different technologies for wireless connection no one will integrate it into set top boxes and TVs, no one technology will get enough volume to fall in price and none of them will be adopted.
And while power consumption is not seen to be an issue in the home (although with global warming highlighting the standby power consumption of equipment, it is) the thought of 60GHz millimetre wave signals being pumped around the living room worries me from a safety perspective.
But the unlicensed 60GHz band offers the spectral availability for true uncompressed HD video, audio and data transmission, scaleable to future HD A/V formats such as 1080p, says SiBeam, and is backed by Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, LG, NEC and Toshiba,who should all know better (VHS vs Beta, HD DVD vs Blu Ray, anybody??)
“WirelessHD’s vision to significantly simplify and enhance people’s ability to view and transport multimedia content among a wide range of devices is both exciting and promising; this represents the first application of SiBEAM’s innovative millimeter wave semiconductor technology,” said John LeMoncheck, President and CEO. “SiBEAM intends to lend their full support to WirelessHD in the area of achieving consumer solutions at mass market pricing through the use of 60 GHz in CMOS technology. In the future, SiBEAM’s technology will enable consumers to efficiently move and share the increasingly large amounts of data and multimedia that are part of everyday life in a wide range of environments.”
First samples and prototyping systems are expected in 2007, but don't expect volume. At all.

Cambridge Consultants re-starts its spin out programme

Some think that the best time to spin out a new company is at the peak of the market, to get the best backing but to give the new venture time to develop while the market is quieter.
If that is the case, then the fact that Cambridge Consultants Ltd (CCL) is looking to spin out new companies after a four year gap could be a strong sign!
The company, which has previously been responsible for spinning out CMOS single chip Bluetooth and WiFi giant Cambridge Silicon Radio, video chip designer Alphamosaic (bought by Broadcom) and low cost microcontroller chip maker Cyan Technology, is setting up a £10m fund with venture capital group Esprit Capital Partners exclusively for the spin outs. Spin-outs from Cambridge Consultants collectively employ a stunning 3,000 people, many in the Cambridge area.
CCL has a wide range of technologies in-house, from the low cost XAP microcontroller family to low power radio designs. But there are other areas, including radar and drug delivery that could yield spinouts, with the first one next year.
“To make a truly successful venture you need three key ingredients – the right people, the right technologies and the right market conditions," said Ray Edgson, Ventures Director at CCL. "With confidence now restored in the global technology markets, we believe that it is people that make the essential difference between average and truly great new ventures. Our track record of success in this area shows that our unique culture allows us to develop just such people.

Ironically the spinouts are important to attract the best staff, he says.
"We are able to recruit some of the best engineers in the world because of the stimulating and creative environment we provide as they develop throughout their careers. However, whilst there is a structured career path within the company, our venturing model allows those who want to exploit their entrepreneurial skills to go on and start their own businesses, whilst being supported by our established networks and systems," he said.

The new investment will be made by Prelude Trust plc, the investment trust that specialises in early stage technology-based businesses, now managed by Esprit Capital Partners.
"By combining both partners’ venture expertise, our aim is to deliver a clutch of spin-outs over the next few years that will carry on the tradition of generating both employment and wealth-creation for many in the region,” said Simon Cook, CEO of Esprit Capital Partners.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Chinese TV maker struggles in Europe


Chinese TV maker TCL, which took over Thomson's TV and DVD business three years ago and created TCL Thomson Electronics (TTE) as one of the largest consumer electronics companies on the globe, is re-structuring and pulling out of the Thomson brand, but not for another two years!
The company, which is still focussed on CRT TVs rather than flat panel, 'is planning a new business model'. Whatever that is, it will still guarantee manufacturing at Thomson's Angers factory until the end of 2008.
This might be an admission that it cannot compete in Europe (although I suspect it has discovered the weakness of the Thomson consumer brand in Europe), it is more likely to be a move into LCD TVs manufactured in China rather than here. After all, it expects sales volume of flat-panel TVs to overtake CRT and reach 22.6 million units in 2010 in China, said Li Dongsheng, chairman and president of TCL to Digitimes.
Demand for flat-panel TVs in China is expected to total 9.5 million units in 2007, up from 4.6 million this year. As a result, China will overtake Japan and become the third largest flat-panel TV market next year, Li said. In China, LCD TV sales volume will reach five times the amount of PDP TVs, Li estimates.

Inventory woes continue


After two quarters of ballooning semiconductor inventories in the electronics supply chain, early results for the third quarter indicate that excess chip stockpiles are not going away, says market researcher iSuppli. This is storing up trouble for next year - it is unlikely that there will be a boom at Christmas, so the overhang will move into 2007.

“After excess inventories rose to $3.9 billion in the first half of the year, the overloaded situation in the supply chain was expected to ease slightly moving into the second half,” said Rosemary Farrell, semiconductor inventory analyst for iSuppli. “However, based on reported financial results, the third quarter will end up looking much like the second quarter. This means that the stress on the supply chain caused by excess inventory will remain after the holidays.”

iSuppli’s updated estimate shows excess semiconductor inventory in the global electronics supply chain in the third quarter remained flat at the second-quarter level of $3.9 billion. A lot of this is in the PC market, but there is also overhang in networking and consumer.

As analysts and Broadcom have shown, it is inventory that is the key unknown for the industry, despite strong growth rates this month. Hang on for a bumpy ride.

Garlik - a boon or a curse for Web data?

A fantastic story for Halloween is the emergence of Garlik to protect users from the vampires that would suck up their data across the Web.
One argument I have with AEPOC (below) is their claim about DRM and protecting data, so the proposal is spot on.
These are the guys who set up the Egg internet bank, and are now turning their attention to protecting user data across the Web. Well, not exactly protecting, but letting you know when it changes, and so highlighting any risks (identity theft etc) as soon as possible. It uses technology developed by Prof Nigel Shadbolt of School of Electronics & Computer Science at the University of Southampton, (specialising in artificial intelligence) and tracks your data through databases across the Web. That's brilliant, and very, very worrying, for if they can do it, who else can.
This is a model obviously synchronised with a subscription (GBP30 a month), as there have to be deals with the database holders (although drilling into databases easily is a very two edged tool). It also makes it a target for identity thieves. They have a very strong management team and connections, and will be the darling of the venture capital. But just how scalable this is remains to be seen, and I would like to see a tool open to everyone rather than a subscription service.
They are in beta mode at the moment, and I wonder what else they provide apart from an automated credit checking service. It'll take two weeks for the initial report to come through (that's the scalability worry) and to see how detailed my digital footprint is, so watch this space.
There is another security service called BankClarity where you put in your bank and credit card details and it 'learns' your transactions. Again, GBP30/month, and it claims to be 100% secure (which is hubris that worries me!)

Friday, October 27, 2006

Poor viewing figures for mobiles


Only 3% of subscribers in the UK watch TV on their mobiles, either downloaded or streamed, and that is less than the number that upload pictures to blogs from their phones.
The latest research from Telephia shows that a third of these are watching BBC1, while another third are waching Sky Sports. But the dire state of mobile video downloads goes to highlight the potnetial problems of video on TV. Yes, making it easier to watch by a streaming channel might boost the takeup, but the quality and the size of the video is still not conducive to watching TV on a phone.
What people are doing is uploading video from the phone to websites such as YouTube and then watching them on the PC, which is a very different mechanism. Another Telephia report from the US shows that the same proportion, 3%, are uploading video to websites (which is 8m people). In Europe, uploading is driven by the Spanish (15%), Italians (14%) and then UK (12%), and the leading phone by miles is the Motorola RAZR, followed by the Nokia 6101

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Digital TV on Gorilla Island


In covering the digital TV market, there are many wierd and wonderful applications (many, it has to be said, in IPTV!). But one of the most strange must be the Sky+ installation on .... Gorilla Island!
The two lowland gorillas at the Longleat safari park have 500 channels of digital TV to watch via their personal video recorder. It all started with a black and white TV when they were in quarantine, but now they have upgraded and you can see the satellite dish on the side of their house.
Their favourite programmes? Big Cook Little Cook, Balamory, Bob the Builder and Spongebob Squarepants (all kids TV, in case you hadn't guessed, bright colours and clear explanations!). They don't like sports, or soaps, however and turn away from the TV if these are on!

Sharp pulls out of ARM family


Sharp Microelectronics has pulled out of ARM-based microcontrollers in what I believe is an unfortunate first for ARM - the first time that a major semiconductor vendor has stopped making parts with the ARM processor core.
Sharp had a range of controllers under the BlueStreak brand using the ARM7 and ARM9 cores and with some sophisticated peripherals such as an LCD controller. But the parts haven't gained the traction that the company hoped - I suspect there were lots of low volume designs (with lots of support costs) but not the high volume deals.
I also suspect that the devices were too highly priced with those peripherals and too niche (one of the potential problems of the 'system on a chip' approach). The controller market is fiercely competitive and the volume deals come from corporate buying across a wide range of applications - these parts were perhaps too specific for that kind of bulk, company-wide purchasing and so were relegated to the smaller, project-based buys.
Sharp also didn't do well in its marketing of the parts in Europe (in my humble opion anyway - I track the market and didn't see much about them at all, which is never a good sign).
ARM said it doesn't comment on speculation. Oh well. Let's hope it's not the first of several vendors pulling out, then.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The invisibility cloak - bad for airport security

The cloak of invisibility takes a step forward! Metamaterials were proposed earlier in the year by scientists at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering and Imperial College in London, and Techwire reports that they have now developed a cloak with concentric circles of metamaterials that will guide microwaves around itself to provide 'invisibility'. There is a Real video about it here
A nice little story, and useful for giving anything 'stealth' capability without having to use special designs. Good for hiding military and surveillance equipment from observation, but very bad in the wider sense of security. Where do we find microwaves in everyday life (apart from the kitchen?) At airport security machines.
Wrap an object in this material in hand luggage and it will disappear from the airport scanners, looking more like a shirt or a sweater. You can guess what that could be used for. Puts the restrictions on a bottle of water into the shade, doesn't it?

Broadcom softens Q4 outlook

Malcolm's point on the visibility of inventory (below) was shown up just hours later as Broadcom softened it's Q4 outlook to just 1% growth as a result of inventory overhang in DSL and networking chips. As Q3 and Q4 are the strongest quarters of the year, that's a worry. Analysts say they aren't duly worried, but it's another signpost.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The semiconductor cycles are over???

Semiconductor manufacturing capacity has suddenly become a big thing. Samsung this week announced it is investing $1bn this year, (with its competitors expecting that to be in flash rather than DRAM, hmmm) and Powerchip in Taiwan is also expecting to grow its DRAM sales 25% over the next quarter and growing capacity at 18% a quarter.
Usually the sign of a healthy industry, right? Unfortunately not. The semiconductor industry is cyclic and it’s just these big investments that tip the market over into decline (more capacity, lower prices, less return, some suppliers fold or merge). Now some say this doesn’t matter as the cycles have ended: “We used to do this 16, 17% growth per year and then went through this correction,” said Hossein Yossaie, CEO of Imagination Technologies.
“Now it will be a steady 8 to 12% for the foreseeable future. I believe that we will not see the cycle again and all the customers I talk to understand and agree.”
But Malcom Penn of Future Horizons disagrees strongly.
“It’s a quite popularist view,” he said.
“It has reared its head this time last year from the Semiconductor Industry Association and WSTS but there is absolutely no track record for it. Year on year over the last 5 years the market has been all over the place. I don’t see how you can say anything has changed as we haven’t had two consecutive years that have proved the argument, ever. It’s just pie in the sky.”
The key issue is there is still limited visibility of the inventory he says.
“Inventory adjustment is the big unknown,” said Penn. “So for a few quarters we might have relative stability but then the inventory and lead time issues come into play.”
He also points to 60 to 70% of chip sales being in the second half of any year, creating capacity issues through the year.”
The chief economist at ST Microelectronics sits between the two. “The last big peak was 2004 and usually there should be a big drop, but everything is looking at 7% growth,” said Jean-Philippe Dauvin, who is also on the WSTS world semiconductor statistics board.
“I recognise that now the cycle seems to be smoother.”
“But it seems that the cycles are within the year,” he said. “Now we are very much surprised to see the changes in each quarter and this creates the need for a lot of adjustments that are not easy to manage.”
But he is still cautious. “I see a much smoother cycle but I continue to be prepared for something to happen,” he said.
And it is the unexpected that will be the problem, says Penn.
“As the semiconductor market matures, an economic slowdown will automatically throw you into recession and that happens overnight and without warning,” he said.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Green Hills looks to get into PC with secure desktop - but that's just the start

It’s not often that someone wants to take on Microsoft in the desktop operating system. But possibly, just possibly, that’s what Green Hills Software is thinking. They have been demonstrating a system that boots their Integrity real time operating system on a PC, giving it a secure, controlled and stable platform. Then Linux or Windows XP can run on top in what they call a ‘padded cell’, running all your favourite applications but much more secure from attack. Why? Because this is initially aimed at generals in the military, replacing several systems (real time data display systems that are already based on Integrity, the ordinary PC, that kind of thing) with just the one.
It’s actually quite a nice idea. There may be a bit of a problem in the ordinary desktop (Microsoft gets paid whether a PC ships with it or not), but the security gives a strong added value, and this plays into the problem of digital rights management and protecting user data highlighted in the blog below – Integrity could be running the government data network, or the online banking, or whatever, much more securely and controllably than a browser.
That extends to all sorts of devices, from digital TV decoders to handhelds. After all, Integrity already powers many of these and is optimised for embedded systems. Now there’s a thought – price the licenses for volume and if Green Hills don’t get greedy and try to get rich quick, then THAT is an enabler of the Information society and not the plonkers of the AEPOC.

Look out for stolen D-Link broadband routers in the UK


Cisco-subsidiary D-Link has had a consignment of broadband routers (left) stolen in Kent en route to its European Logistic Centre.
The consignment of 7200 of the DWL-922 Broadband Router and USB Adapters has a retail price of £288,000, but trying to ship these out in the pubs of Kent is probably not such a smart move. The more worrying thing is any dodgy retailers looking to boost their margins and selling at a much lower price!
The stolen goods are sold under the model number: DWL-922/E and UPC Code: 790069285479 on the bar-code together with the individual serial number label of the retail box, and if you buy one, contact Tahira Perveen, the UK & Ireland Sales Manager
Apparently it is not only the financial loss to D-Link but more importantly causes confusion in the channel and to the market, i.e. people are not buying the main priced units! So of course D-link is encouraging the public not to purchase, sell or re-sell these products (!) but it will still support them (!!)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

ST Microelectronics celebrates 20 years of Bristol design centre (and no, it isn’t a secret!)


ST Microelectronics is this week celebrating 20 years of its design centre in Bristol, with the great and the good cutting a ribbon in the foyer (make of that what you will – gratuitous video below!) But it is great to see the support.
What REALLY makes my blood boil is the phrase ‘Bristol is the best kept secret in chip design’, used unfortunately by Prof Eric Thomas, vice chancellor of Bristol University (left). I wrote the story of Bristol as the Silicon Gorge over 15 years ago now, and it has gone from strength to strength.
Bristol is the largest chip design cluster in Europe, according to analysts Future Horizons. Yes, it isn’t immediately obvious, but it is known in the industry, with ST, with Icera, with HP Labs, with picoChip, with SuperH, and so on and so on ...... It is not so obvious outside the semiconductor industry because there hasn’t been the focus on the equipment side, as there has been in Cambridge. Cambridge is more famous because it had more end user marketing through Acorn and companies like that (and spinning off ARM from Acorn) and what hasn't been promoted particularly are companies such as Motorola and Lucent in the region (becasue they are multinationals and this is just one site - but that's the point - that's why its a strong cluster, because those sites are here!) That’s one of the main reasons for SiliconSouthWest news letter, to stop this nonsense (latest issue was out on Friday, sign up for free).
The building in Bristol was opened by Inmos in 1986 before the company was bought by ST in 1989, and has housed the teams that developed the transputer, Chameleon media-processor and the ST40 processor cores – so it’s the building that’s been there 20 years, rather than ST. And the technology developed there - the processor, the system design, the OS20/OS21 operating system, the firmware and middleware - is used in digital TV set top boxes around the world, across the US, Europe and Asia.
The Advanced R&D Centre is one of 16 in ST and currently houses 200 engineers and designers working on the latest processor and chip technology for HD DVD, Blu ray, DVD recorders and set top box designs, as well as chips for GPS satellite navigation systems, printers and embedded wireless networking. The transputer lives on as the ST20+ core in many digital set top boxes, while the site is also recruiting wireless LAN designers to support the design centre in Reading that came with the acquisition of startup Synad.
“The technologies that we develop here become fundamental technologies in a whole range of products as both chips and technology blocks,” said Greville Commins, a marketing director at the site.
Cutting the ribbon are Christos Lagomichos, vice president of the Home Entertainment group at ST (left), Prof Eric Thomas, vice chancellor of Bristol University (centre) and Graham Harrison, head of sector development for the South West regional Development Agency (SWRDA) (right).

Friday, October 06, 2006

Anti-piracy vendors in denial


The European Anti-Piracy Association (AEPOC) is giving itself airs and graces. Apparently, conditional access (CA) and Digital Rights Management (DRM) are vital for the EU Information Society.

While I agree they are essential technologies for protecting content to allow the content makers to make money, they are a long way from being enablers. In fact, the main (unstated) aim of DRM appears to be greed - locking out other content suppliers (cf Apple iTunes vs the MP3 format, and see the IPTV stories below). After all, why else would the rights to show football matches raise so much money?

This view only becomes true when all the CA and DRM technologies are available on all platforms to give a truly open choice - which with evolving technology and evolving hackers is never. Even the top 3 would do. But this will require reconfigurable hardware that can be flexible and cost effective enough, which is still some years away.

And if CA and DRM is so important, how come there are tens of millions of videos on Youtube, all without protection. AEPOC of course thinks this is a mistake.

"While security is the prerequisite to convince rights owners to make their content available in the first place, we see a critical role in CA and DRM to support the consumption of content on many different platforms and devices for a modern and lifestyle-oriented media consumption – thus supporting the EU goal of an Information Society", said AEPOC President Jean Grenier.

"Looking at the many social software platforms that put consumer created content in the focus, also individuals – as one of the stakeholders in terms of content creation – will soon wish to be able to protect their work and possibly even be rewarded for their contributions,” said Mathieu Goudsmits, Vice Chairman of AEPOC. “Thus security and rights management is not only a necessity for the larger movie studios but also beneficial to every single creator and artist."

What is important is protecting user’s vital data, and we cannot do that effectively yet – the UK’s ID card debacle is a classic example. But there’s no money in it for the providers, is there?. So I would have MUCH more time from a proposal from the members of AEPOC on freely available, highly secure data protection systems rather than DRM. THAT is the enabler of the Information Society, along with lower cost interactive terminals and free access to community information (paid for by advertising that you WANT people to copy and send to other people, surely, hmmmm).

Have you not heard of Open Source, people? PGP Pretty Good Privacy started there and shows that it can work for security. Donate some technology into the Open Source community to protect personal data

Don’t get me wrong – CA and DRM are vital for the commercial roll out of digital TV systems, and that could form the backbone of the information society, and opening up those networks for social networking and information is vital, I agree.

But CA and DRM at this point is a block, NOT an enabler. Unless the industry faces up to that rather than being in denial then there are going to be problems for everyone and the roll out of the Information Society will continue at the current snail’s pace.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Ten years of Tetra



Goodness me. Is it really the tenth anniversary of the TETRA standard?
Motorola has been pounding the TETRA story over that time, with ups and downs, with most of the success for the ETSI-standard-based radio technology in the police and emergency services where Motorola has a traditional stranglehold and has successfully migrated .
Now it finally seems more commercial organisations are getting interested, but it a bit late for poor Dolphin, if you remember. The TETRA-based network went into receivership in July 2004 having spent millions on infrastructure (from Nokia) and marketing. The industry is littered with people who thought Tetra would be a good market - remember Philips in Cambridge? But that spawned Sepura as a supplier of handsets competing with Motorola (using Siemens to make the handsets), with companies such as NCT Europe providing their ClearSpeech algorithms to improve the performanace of the phones.
Ten years on, it’s not just a European story. Shanghai and Beijing are now replacing their city radio networks with Tetra-based systems.
The technology is developing slightly as well. While it is mostly about cost and ruggedness, there is also a Tetra PDA from Motorola (above), but I’m not convinced you are going to see your local policeman walking around with it just yet!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Do you need a Wibree?

Nokia has launched yet another wireless standard into the market.
The bizarrely-named Wibree (it has nothing to do with the Korean WiMax variant called WiBro, and has a very different data rate) operates in 2.4 GHz ISM band with physical layer bit rate of 1 Mbps and provides link distance of 5-10 meters.
The difference appears to be that it has a very low (they won’t really know how low until the chips come back next year) link layer for low power idle mode operation, simple device discovery and reliable point-to-multipoint data transfer with advanced power-save and encryption functionalities. The link layer provides means to schedule Wibree traffic in between Bluetooth transmissions so that the two can work together in phones, or in a single mode to a watch (oh no, Dick Tracy’s video watch raises its ugly head yet again! It hasn't sold in the past - it won't this time either.)
But wasn’t ultrawideband (UWB) looking to do this as well? Companies such as Staccato Communications and Artimi are looking to single chips using very high speed transfers to keep the power down, and they are well ahead of any WiBree developments. These can run Bluetooth protocols over a UWB physical layer, but the spectrum has not been allocated for some of these services.
Meanwhile Zigbee operates in the same 2.4GHz ISM band with a low power, peer-to-peer, hopping, mesh architecture.
Oh, and Philips (duh, NXP Semiconductor) has just launched its WiMax transceiver aimed at mobile phones for data connections. And Cambridge Silicon Radio has Unifi, which combines Bluetooth and WiFi.
But CSR have licensed the technology, alongside Broadcom Corporation, Epson and Nordic Semiconductor. My guess is they can't afford not to if Nokia says that's what they want.
Just how many two way radios do we need in a phone. It’s madness, people. Stop already.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Agere deal adds another step to asynchronous logic

Asynchronous logic design house Intrinsity has signed a deal with Agere Systems to use Intrinsity's Fast14 technology.
I've kept an eye on Intrinsity for years now, waiting for its time to come. This isn't it, as the Agere deal includes memory control and design services and won't see the boom that Intinsity is hoping, and hanging on, for.
The technology is great - low power with high performance, just what everyone says they need. And a few companies have used it: AMCC is using it for an asynchronous version of the PowerPC, and ATI has used it in the past, which may bring it into AMD. But the domino logic techniques it uses are hard for today's design tools (and for today's designers) to use, so I suspect Intrinsity has to do most of the work. Great as a boutique business with Fast14 as a demonstrator of your abiities - not so great as the next best thing since sliced bread.

"Intrinsity's Fast14 technology represents a revolutionary way to build enhanced embedded cores," says Bob Russo, Intrinsity CEO. "Fast14 provides performance, area, power and infrastructure cost savings in ways conventional technologies cannot achieve. We are pleased to be working with Agere to deliver digital macrocells that will provide superior performance per milliwatt. Additionally, by employing both this technology and high speed memory design expertise, our expert processor design team will be able to leverage the strengths of both dynamic and static CMOS technologies and provide cores that optimally meet Agere's targets."

But it is other approaches for asynchronous that are taking off more effectively - particularly Handshake Solutions, with an asynchronous, ultra low power version of the ARM processor (ARM996HS) for RFID applications where power is more important than performance. But the key thing that Handshake did was build synchronous interfaces to allow the processor core to interface easily to the rest of the system-on-chip. That was hard to make work, and hits the performance, but actually made the technology viable. That's the area where Intrinsity struggles.

Friday, September 29, 2006

A bit of a Lobster phone


Cambridge-based The Technology Partnership (TTP) has designed the mobile TV system used for the Virgin Mobile broadcast service launching next week in the Lobster 700 phone.
TTP took the basic GSM design from Chinese handset maker HTC and added the hardware and software for IP-DAB using a choice of different DSPs and tuners, rather than a traditional DAB chipset.
“We are agnostic to the semiconductor technology and optimised the software to extend the battery life,” said Martin Orrell, General Manager for Mobile TV at TTP. "Working with BT Movio, HTC and Virgin Mobile to make possible the roll out of the UK's first commercial broadcast mobile TV service. We believe this service launch will be an important catalyst for mobile TV growth worldwide. TTP expects its proven expertise and enabling software and hardware to be at the heart of many more services as the mobile TV market takes off around the world."

Lots of fuss over mobile TV

Several mobile TV chip makers have been 'participating' in the debate over whether the time is right for a single chip for DVB-H etc. Frontier Semiconductor launched a single chip at IBC, but DibCom said that fixed function optimised for cost are still the way to go.
Imagination Technologies hit back saying its programmable demodulator is pretty much the same size as a fixed function demodulator, so there.

This is what the fight is all about - the Nokia N93 with DVB-H mobile TV using the Dibcom demodulator, but TI is fighting hard to get its Hollywood single chip designed in.



But the argument is still where the different elements go: the demodulator can be integrated into the applications processor and this is the approach that graphics giant Nvidia is looking at (which is fine with Imagination becasue they will icesne you the technology to do that) but will be a bit of a blow to Frontier. But it leaves the RF tuner guys laughing.
But it's all horses for courses, as there will be some handset makers that want to put a simple single chip down on the design, and others that want to integrate it, so there will the time to market issues as well as cost. Designers such as TTP (above) are using whatever is best on the market (and they developed the first DAB module for Imagination that was later licensed to Frontier).
The kicker was Vodafone this week saying it doesn't actually like broadcast mobile TV such as DVB-H, as the broadcasters getthe money instead of them. Instead it will be using high speed 3G modem standards HSDPA and HSUPA (eg a chip from Icera Semiconductor and Qualcomm) to put the video over the 3G network, as they already have the spectrum (and have to pay for it) and the broadcasters don't.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Intel puts 80 processor on a chip

Intel has shown a research project to put 80 processors on a chip that will provide a teraflops of performance (compared to 4Gflops for today's 2GHz dual core Pentiums) in five years time. These 80 processors are floating point cores running at 3.16GHz, apparently, to get that performance, but I suspect that is a theoretical figure. If two cores at 2GHz produce 31W, imagine the heat off that lot (well over 1KW (ok 1.8KW) - sit round family and warm your hands!)



However, the ITRS semiconductor roadmap sees 79 processing elements on a chip by 2010 , but that is up from 23 this year and 32 next year (while Intel is still at, um, 2 - the quad part is two dual cores in the same package!).

Have a talk to Picochip in Bath, who today put 240 processor on a chip, and make them all work together for WiMax and 3G basestations in the home from companies such as Ubiquisys and IPwireless!

These are the ones who will drive to the ITRS predictions of 268 processing elements on a chip by 2015 and 878 (nearly a thousand processing elements on a single chip) by 2020.

The Biggs equation of work

Check out the excellent fun equation for work from John Biggs of ARM. It answers several deep and meaningful questions (like why teenagers have no money), but John, I fear you may get stuck with that one! Quoted on John Cooley's Deepchip EDA Blog.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A new model for delivering IPTV


Bob Giddy, CEO of Cambridge-based Amino Communications is very excited about his new set top box. The Aminet 125, based on TI's Da Vinci video processor, now allows a low cost IPTV set top box that can retail for GBP99. Good stuff.
But that's not the reason he is excited. He is talking to the suppliers of websites that have video - not just Youtube, but those like JumpTV that are providing streaming video over the Internet, for example if you like UK TV but live in the US or Japan. At the moment you play these on your PC, and ther is a lot of talk about connecting up that PC with the TV.
Bob's view is the other way around. Teaming up with the likes of JumpTV so that you can sign up and pay for a box on the Website along with your subscription, have UPS ship it from Amino to the customer, who plugs it into the phone socket and the TV and you have IPTV, cutting out all that expensive equipment roll out (as the customer pays for the kit), trials and testing by the telcos who want to provide IPTV. Once the box is in, JumpTV can sell other content services to the customer.
Bob likes this idea, and it makes a lot of sense.


The story gets even better when you think about the ability to insert interactive advertising on a local or individual basis through technology such as PacketVision (see how they can give the kit away below). Because PacketVision still owns the kit and charges on a 'per click' basis, it can sell the services to anyone on that network - the telco providing the line or the website provding the content, and everyone potentially wins. That's when it gets very interesting.

The problems come
a) if you have an HDTV - the pictures from the streaming vidoe won't look very good at all, and
b) if this really gets successful the telcos will kill it stone dead. That's why the DSL provision is on a 'best case' basis - if this got successful you would find that 'best case' really wasn't very good at all.

But here is the opportunity for the telco to team up with websites and share the revenue. Lets hope they see that!

A new way to do make money in IPTV...


...give your network kit away!

PacketVision is a very interesting startup in Reading in the UK (even if its name is far too close to video compression software company PacketVideo). It is taking standard off the shelf components, combining them with key software and producing networking equipment for the IPTV space that has the potential to change the economics of the business.
It has developed a 1U unit that can insert advertising into an IP stream on a local or even individual basis, fully interactively with full traceability, much like the Cherrypicker ad-insertion kit. But, because it is based on IP and a standard network processor from PCM-Sierra, it is a fraction of the price.
The interesting thing is that for the first customer trialling the system (in Alaska!) PacketVision is giving them the kit. And not just them. Anyone. And charging on a per-click basis.

This brings the Internet approach to broadcast. And as setting up the IP network is expensive, it will appeal to the operators. And it is possible because the kit is so much cheaper.
BUT - the really big thing is that becasue it stil owns this means that PacketVision can sell advertising to other people that use the infrastructure, not just the IPTV provider, again on a per-click basis. this becomes even more compelling with new IPTV models (see above).
So they are not a hardware company or even a software company but an advertising company!

Video

Please bear with me slightly while I experiment with video on this blog. Hopefully you wiull see things you haven't seen before - that is the point, such as this 3D fused display from NTT.


But please do make a comment if there are things you don't like - this is an evolving medium and no one has worked out how to combine video and what kind of video clips work. The videos will also be available from Jumpcut, so please email me for more details.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

16Gbyte Compact flash card

Sandisk's latest CF format card: 16Gbytes, for pro cameras and video cameras. $1049. Blimey.

Multi-dweller access moves up the curve

Equipment makers are starting to look at ways of providing digital TV to people who live in blocks of apartments.

UK-based set top box maker Pace Microtechnology is moving into providing telecom equipment with a new system to allow satellite and cable TV operators to offer their services to large blocks, while X-Digital Systems in the US is using 48 of ADI's Blackfin processors in a satellite receiver with FM modulator that allows satellite operators to stream digital audio to hotels and apartment complexes.

Many blocks of flat have restrictions on satellite dishes and cable access, and Pace has developed technology that essentially puts a small video headend on the roof of the building. This MultiDewellerUnit (MDU) is connected to the individual flats by the existing coax cable network used to pipe terrestrial TV to flats, so no new wires are needed, and would connect to a new set top box in the home. It uses QAM modulation to transmit the TV over the coax with an agile frequency hopping protocol to avoid interference, with an uplink from the set top box to the headend so that the user can change channels.

This technology would allow HDTV services and broadband data access up to 30Mbit/s with the same performance as today’s satellite or cable TV set top box in the living room. Linking a hard disk drive into the headend could also provide a local video on demand service.

The potential problem is that the equipment has to sit on the roof of the building and work reliably 24/7 for many years, and Pace has to demonstrate that it can meet the quality standards of other network equipment makers.

So Pace is now working with cable TV suppliers to put coax networks that are up to 30 years old into the lab to prove that the system will work and to demonstrate that it scales up to blocks with up to 50 flats. This covers over 60% of 'multi dwelling units' in Europe, says Pace.

US satellite set top box maker X-Digital is also using the coax infrastructure. Its MSL384 satellite receiver converts digital satellite signals to FM analogue signals that can be picked up by standard consumer audio receivers. Each receiver employs 48 Blackfin processors to decode 384 MPEG 1 Layer 2 Audio streams. Each processor handles eight MPEG 1 Layer 2 Audio streams, as well as ADI's AD9726 TxDAC 16-bit,
400 MSPS transmit digital-to-analogue converter onto the COAX network .

"With the MLS384, X-Digital is taking aim at the MDU audio services market. Because each Blackfin enables us to process multiple digital audio signals, X-Digital is able to leverage the MLS384 for the high density and low power needed in the MDU market," said Ian Lerner, President of X-Digital Systems. "In the past, carriers have lost out on this market because of their inability to provide satellite dish installs to every apartment."

Linux on Pentium in safety critical

LynuxWorks has developed what seems to be the first commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) open source Linux safety critical real time operating system (RTOS) that supports the Pentium processor.

LynxOS-178 2.2 adds Pentium X86 support to the established PowerPC and other platforms supported by existing releases to the 178 safety critical standard. Other enhancements in the v2.2 include support for distributed communications middleware products such as Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) or Distributed Data Systems (DDS). This architecture allows multiple different devices to communicate in distributed systems.

At the same time LynuxWorks has upgraded its flagship RTOS to LynxOS 4.2, with increased memory, an updated Linux Application Binary Interface (ABI) and support for new peripheral devices, including Serial ATA and PCI Express. LynxOS 4.2 has increased RAM (up to 1 GB), features a fully integrated, updated GNU tool chain (3.2.2) and an enhanced Linux ABI (based on glibc 2.2.93) to provide a streamlined development and execution environment. LynxOS is the only real-time operating system to offer a Linux ABI layer.

LynuxWorks has also upgraded its BlueCat embedded Linux operating system to improve the real time performance. The BlueCat 5.4 enhancements include support for Linux kernel 2.6.13, which results in improved performance, along with an updated GNU tool chain. Initial performance figures indicate that average interrupt response times are down by three times and average context switch times have been reduced by nine times showing a large performance leap over the previous 2.6 kernel. A marked improvement in determinism has also been observed with worst-case performance spikes having been reduced significantly.

This will be good news to all those who want a more reliable, deterministic Linux and use the Pentium.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Look past downloads to the pre-loaded video card



Today's announcement of a chipset for low end mobile phones from Agere Systems has a little bit more to it than just a product story. The X125 chipset allows a full phone to be built for $30, or $50 for one with a better screen that plays videos. This is key, as it brings this capability into the low end market.

This opens up a huge market, not for downloads, but for providing pre-loaded content on microSD cards.

The density is now sufficient for a full feature film on a 512Mbyte card (QVGA resolution, 25 frame/s) that is affordable - there are even money off deals that could be done to reduce the net cost of the card to zero. There is plenty of content around (perhaps the 6 best episodes of Coronation Street or any soap opera would be a key seller), and one card maker in particular already has the digital rights management, content protection and even routes to retailers that the studios need.

Is this coming now? Too right it is!

In October Disney is launching its Mix Max personal digital media player for kids, which will use, you guessed it, digital media cards for playing full-length movies, digital music, TV shows and viewing photos. The new gadget will be priced at less than $100.
"With the Disney Mix Stick, we proved that kids were ready for digital music," said Chris Heatherly, head of global electronics at Disney's consumer products unit. "The plug-and-play experience also proved to be a winning feature for parents who welcomed the idea of not having to download music for their kids."
SanDisk is the major supplier of SD and microSD cards, and has both DRM technology and deals with retailers already to sell its cards for phones and digital cameras. It has already been experimenting with pre-loaded content, shipping a Rolling Stones album earlier in the year.

It has also recently bought a company that specialises in low cost one time programmable memory - now that starts to get very interesting for your protected content.

These content deals are in the pipeline, says Pedro Varga, director of mobile entertainment at SanDisk, and they have many different routes to market, from branding the card with the content to co-branding. And it's not just video - the X125 also includes a Java engine running on an ARM926EJS processor, and just brought movies, video and games a whole lot closer.

This is the kind of video that was running on the reference platform, from a hard drive rather than a card.

Prize time?

The EUROPEAN ICT prize has been launched, with a total of EUR700,000 to be awarded to innovative projects.
The deadline for the European Information and Communication Technologies Prize is 4 December 2006, with 3 grand prize and 20 winners announced in February next year. Applications from any enterprise or lab in Europe can be made online at www.ict-prize.org.
The idea is to highlight innovative companies that convert novel ideas into marketable products, but they can only be as good as the applicaiotns - previous years have been somewhat mediocre, as I recall, and it is absolutely VITAL that Europe demonstrates its expertise in innovation. Last years projects seem to be mostly software-based, so some hardware innovation would be welcome.
All applications are assessed by independent experts from 16 European countries (so there will be lots of fighting) and an executive jury, composed of executives from 19 European countries will propose the Grand Prize winners (so there will be be lots of politics as well).
The selection criteria include technical excellence, innovative content, potential market impact, capacity to generate employment (politics!), contribution to the acceptance and understanding of ICT in society, and likely social impact.
Apply! Make it good. After all, you could win EUR200,000!

Creating an industrial powerhouse

GE Fanuc (not a name that has high profile in the industry in Europe I would argue) really is trying to create a major global player in industrial automation. It's business is building in the industrial market, up from low end embedded and mechanical applications, and last week it announced plans to acquire Radstone Technology here, a UK-based but US-focussed maker of aerospace and military equipment in a £130m ($250m) deal.
What makes it more interesting is that Radstone has been moving into the industrial space anyway, using its expertise with the high reliability systems.
Today it signed a deal with RST Industrie Automation in Germany to supply hardware that will run the LynuxWorks real time Linux and RST's Gamma COTS (commercial off the shelf) open architecture middleware to develop complete customer solutions in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
GE Fanuc last year acquired SBS Technologies, which was another mil/aero equipment maker that was aiming at industrial as well, and it seems the company is significantly building up its capabilties (although the Radstone deal brings more US mil/aero business than industrial). The key was that the management were expanding the industrial side!
If GE fanuc are smart, Radstone will make a strong base of engineering for both mil/aero and industrial in Europe. If not, they will just milk the mil/aero contacts and let it die.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Samsung pushes back the memory boundaries with 40nm, 32Gbit flash

Samsung is certainly pushing back the boundaries on memory technology with a 32Gbit NAND flash memory and launched its bid for the next generation of NOR flash technology. As the largest maker of memory, it does seem to be doing what it has to in order to keep ahead.
Since the 1Gbit and 4Gbit generations, as an industry we have become immune to the awe of the density of these devices. A 32Gb NAND flash memory can now be used in memory cards with densities of up to 64Gbytes, storing over 64 hours of DVD resolution movies (40 movies) or 16,000 MP3 music files (1,340 hours).
Using a 40nm process and a Charge Trap Flash (CTF) architecture for the first time, where the data is temporarily placed in a "holding chamber" of the non-conductive layer of the flash memory composed of silicon nitride, rather than using a control gate.
CTF reduces the noise between memory cells, which with 40nm stuctures is a major problem. Samsung says this is scalable down to 30 and even 20nm, and is only 20% larger than a standard control gate. This is a TANOS structure of tantalum, aluminum oxide (high k material), nitride, oxide and silicon, combining metal and high K for the first time in NAND flash, says the company.

Next generation NOR flash

At the same time Samsung is addressing the next generation of NOR. Current NOR flash technology used in mobile phones isn’t scaling well and will face reliability challenges in the future, so Samsung is proposing phase-change RAM (which it called PRAM and tries to call ‘perfect’ RAM – please don’t). This is similar to the chalcogenide technology that’s been in research for ten years, but the Samsung version has a vertical cell with a size half that of NOR flash and requires 20 percent fewer process steps, making it much cheaper to make. It is focussing on a 512Mit part that will start shipping in 2008 to replace traditional NOR flash.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Finally!

Finally! - NXP Semiconductor (Philips Semis as was) wins a set top box deal for its Nexperia chip!

But the deal with taiwanese box maker Wistron NeWeb is probably more important as it is the first time that the software from Cambridge-based Amino Communications has been used outside of Amino. The coppany has been working to open up its Intact operating system to other box makers, and this as the first deal is key. It won't do NXP any harm as the platform of Nexperia + Intact can now be used by others


"This is the first port of IntAct's proven software in a STB design from a company other than Amino Communications. The combination of the optimised IntAct software with a powerful silicon solution from NXP will enable WNC to bring a high-performance product to market rapidly. By using IntAct, WNC will eliminate the need for substantial R&D resources required to ensure such widespread interoperability with other elements of the IPTV supply chain."
said Bob Giddy, CEO of Amino.
"By basing our design on the STB810 reference platform running the IntAct software, we have been able to produce a compelling product with a variety of configurations. Our customers in the emerging markets can now use equipment with widely proven software, at a cost that competes with the local big name manufacturers,"
said Haydn Hsieh, CEO & President of Wistron NeWeb.
"Our customers will also be able to apply their own corporate branding to the equipment, thus making the link in consumers' minds between the service and the provider."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Compatibility boost at anniversary of National Instruments


Congratulations to National Instruments, celebrating 30 years in the business, 20 years of the LabView graphical programming tool and 18 years in the UK, and finally growing up by adding some key compatibility with tools that sort of compete, such as MATLAB.
To celebrate with a bit of fun, it has also teamed up with LEGO so that LabView can be used with the classical plastic blocks, creating virtual instruments to control the robots built in MINDSTORMS NXT.
The availability of the LabView toolkit for Lego Mindstorms NXT is critical for encouraging the development of additional tools for the system,
said Soren Lund, director of Lego MINDSTORMS. This allows third party developers to create software for the LEGO systems. Hi Technic Products for example has developed a digital compass sensor for the system using LabView.
Away from plastic blocks, the anniversary version of LabView, 8.20, adds the capability with other system development tools – most importantly with the MATLAB tools but also with Maplesoft Maple, Mathsoft Mathcad and Scilab. That can only help increase its appeal, and allow legacy designs to be used in LabView – surely a good thing.
And on the hardware side, the company has acknowledged that the high speed PXI Express is overpriced and putting off users. So it has launched a PXI Express chassis to build a custom measurement system with five slots and an integrated controller to link back to the PC, all for E950 (GBP655). This PXI-1033 is half the price of the previous entry point, and should encourage more users to take advantage of the high speed capabilities of 110Mbit/s to the host (although it has launched PXI Express cards that run up to 1Gbyte/s).

Friday, September 01, 2006

Selling out

US board maker Tek Micro has opened a design centre in Malvern in the UK in a veiled takeover of part of a UK company that used to be funded by the tax payer.

Tek had been working closely with the real time embedded division of Qinetiq, which is the technology and research arm of the UK's Ministry of Defence. It was partly privatised with investment from the Carlyle Group and floated on the London stock exchange in January.
A new design centre - great news! Except that the new design centre is actually part of the Qinetiq group.
So either Tek has recruited the 5 design guys from Qinetiq, who all resigned at the same time (I really don't think so) as the press release says
TEK Microsystems Limited initially includes a staff of five senior engineers all formerly of QinetiQ.
). Or there was a transfer of the group to it's partner Tek. If that's the case, then why pitch it as a new design centre. If it's a sale or a closing of the division by Qinetiq, then say so (they haven't said that, but this kind of thing is not exactly good governance for a public company either).

The design team has done some really good work, including the VITA55 proposal for linking FPGAs in real time signal processing applications, and they are an asset to Tek Micro.

I welcome a new design centre in the UK whole heartedly, but let it be a new design centre. Similarly, it's great for a very bright team to stay together and be productive with, hopefully, more investment. Just don't try to pull a fast one, please. At least some of us notice.

More to come on this one, I think

Philips morphs into NXP Semiconductor


Apparently the key theme of the Philips Semiconductor transition to a private company, NXP Semiconductor, is 'vibrant' (!). You woundn't guess it from some of the material (see picture).

Another key theme is 'asset light'. By which it seems they wish to be one of the worlds largest fabless chip companies (E4.77bn in 2005), perhaps thinking that fabless is sexy and fast moving and profitable, all the things Philips has struggled with in the past.

And what a past. Apparently there is 53 years of experience to draw on, which is a little ahead of the invention of the transistor, as far as I can remember. I'm sure they mean the electronics expertise, and it's a small quibble, but hey - this is the semiconductor business, not the electronics business.

So what have they got? Calling it NXP is a great sign that the Nexperia platform will stay - years ahead of its time, based around the TriMedia processor core, it needed lots of software development that Philips only realised a few years ago. (Perhaps after they realised they couldn't sell their decoder chips into the Philips set top box business for either SD or HD decoders, which was the main opportunity - especially as Philips Semis dominates the TV chip market)

After all, there is plenty of opportunity, and they see it - targetting E8bn in turnover by 2008, which is aggressive growth.

But they desperately need to get their marketing sorted out - it has been a disaster for several years, but the signs are not hopeful: NXP is just too close to flat speaker developer NXT for comfort, and not really the vibrant image that they are looking for (unless you want a pun on a vibrating speaker). And if they kill the Nexperia product line, it makes the NXP name look very silly!

As a customer, watch out. The Freescale spin out showed the risks involved, with restructuring after restructuring. Now that the private equity investors are in charge, there will be blood (for real this time) on the carpet with a reorganisation that will make the company inward looking for at least 6 months. As it has been inward looking for any years, that won't be stunningly obvious, and hopefully at the end of it the excellent engineering will be complemented by some excellent sales and marketing. But that will be well into 2007 and makes the E8bn target somewhat wishful thinking.

We can only hope.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The end of plasma


I couldn't resist - this is stunning.

Samsung has developed a 70in LCD hi def screen that must mark the death knell of the plasma screen. Even though Samsung can probably only make one at the moment, it doesn't matter. The technology wil scale and the price will come down and plasma will not be able to compete.

The screen is being shown at the International Meeting on Information Displays (IMID) 2006, which will open in Daegu, Korea on August 23.

However, it may not be seen to its best ability of 1080p unless some of the HD films on the coming Blu Ray format have that as an option. But the conical viewing angle of 180 degree visibility will help for larger audiences.

With production in the first half of 2007, it is definitely competing with plasma and should provide a clearer display with a longer lifetime.

Spec:

Display size 70"
Resolution FHD (1,920 by 1,080 pixels)
Mode a-Si
Brightness 600nit
Contrast ratio 2,000:1
Number of Colors 1.07 billion
Color saturation 92%
Response time < 8ms
Viewing angle 180° top, bottom, left and right
No. of polarizers 1

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Welcome to the Embedded Blog

Welcome to a new blog for the Embedded electronics industry in Europe. This aims to provide what you need to know about the industry, but it's not a news site. This is the place to come for exclusive news and comment on why the news matters, written by one of Europe's leading electronics journalists. You will also find video clips of interviews with key executives and have access to edited presentations showing more than you usually find in news stories.

If you want the latest up to date news, you can't do better than EETimes at www.eetimes.eu, but if you want some exclusive news and comment on why it matters, the Embeddedblog at www.flaherty.co.uk is the place to be. By looking across all the different technologies and markets in the embedded space, this blog pulls together trends and opportunities that you might not have seen from sites dedicated to individual topic areas.

The blog will be updated at least once a day from its launch in early September, covering the industry from two angles:

Technology: Processors, FPGAs, IP, Boards, Analogue, Design tools (with an emphasis on ESL), Real time operating systems, memory, test and power technology

Markets: Automotive, Broadcast, Consumer, Industrial, Mil/Aero and Telecoms (fixed and mobile)

Please feel free to contact me on
nick@flaherty.co.uk with any comments or leads.

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