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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.