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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Shake up in the set top box business

Philips has sold its set top box and connectivity business to Pace Micro Technology of the UK in a move that will help Pace achieve the scale that it needs to compete effectively in global markets. The company has been struggling in recent years, although it has a stream of contracts from the US.
The deal also includes the connectivity business, and Pace has been a leader in this area aiming to integrate the connectivity around the home into the set top box to help maintain margins and prevent the business moving to low cost Chinese suppliers.
Philips agreed in principle to divest the STB and CS businesses to Pace in exchange for 70 million Pace shares. The proposed transaction is subject to approvals from Pace shareholders, the relevant regulatory authorities and Philips' workers council. After completion, Philips will become a 23% shareholder in the combined business, representing a market value of around £60m.
The outcome of the transaction will result in a combination of strengths of two leading players in the industry, creating one of the largest set-top-box players in the world at a time when the shift from analogue to digital TV is rapidly increasing. Commenting on the sale, Philippe Alcaras, Business Unit leader Philips Home Networks said: "We feel that the rapidly changing dynamics of the markets in which the STB and CS businesses operate will inevitably culminate in further industry consolidation. By striking a deal with Pace now, we gain the first-mover advantage and it shows Philips' determination to secure a leading role for our businesses, and make them even more relevant to our customers and technology partners."
The two businesses had estimated sales of EUR 425 million in 2007 and employed 335 people, predominantly based in France, who would transfer to Pace as part of the transaction. The remainder of Home Networks, Home Communications, which includes Internet Telephony and Home Telephony (DECT), will become part of the Peripherals & Accessories unit within Philips' Consumer Lifestyle sector.

Monday, November 05, 2007

It’s the tools, stupid! Microchip moves to 32bit with MIPS

Low cost microcontroller maker Microchip is moving to 32bits using the M4K architecture from MIPS Technologies.

This is a key move for both Microchip, whose PIC 8bit and 16bit microcontrollers are used in millions of places, and for MIPS, that has been missed in the early coverage of the story.

The key is the tools environment. Microchip gets a ready made ecosystem of debuggers and simulators, all of which are much more important in the 32bit space as the point of going to 32bits is to use off the shelf operating systems and readily available protocol stacks etc. These are all available for MIPS already, which is a stunning advantage for Microchip.

But there is also a huge benefit for MIPS, as there is now a tremendous potential installed base of designers who want to use Microchip controllers. This will work in two ways – it encourages and further strengthens the ecosystem and tool development as there are now hundreds of thousands of potential customers for the third party embedded software developers and for the tool vendors. Suddenly the MIPS ecosystem is now hugely viable. That plays into MIPS’ system on chip market, as a successful Microchip design can go to a single chip custom ASIC chip or semi-custom ASSP chip without changing the application software, providing an easier route to lower costs and higher volumes.

Microchip is using the M4K low end variant of the MIPS architecture which was announced last week along with a wide range of analogue peripherals to go around the core from MIPS' earlier acquisition of ChipIdea.

Industry comment to follow……

Monday, October 01, 2007

Plastic TV comes to the market

Sony is reported to be ready to launch the world's first TV based on OLED light emitting plastic polymer technology at the beginning of December in Japan.
The value is that it is thin - just 3mmm thick. The problem is that it is small and expensive - only 11 inches and Y20,000, or just under £1000 (and even then the suggestion is that this is a loss). So it will fit a niche market where light and thin really, really matters - so as a panel on high end consumer systems of all sorts, in luxury kitchens, on portable equipment, that sort of thing. The trouble is to drive enough volume to get the price down and to get the size of the panels up so that it is truly a consumer proposition - and that means above 20in for that same £1000 price point (even for PC monitors it needs to be 17in). That will be a struggle, even for Sony, and a lot more investment required.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A digital instrument for the 21st century

What would an instrument designed for digital music look like? That question has been bothering Japanese media artist Toshio Iwai since 1985, and his vision has finally come true with the worldwide launch in the UK of Tenori-On.
This is a 16 x 16 grid of buttons lit by white LEDs that produces a range of 253 synthesized 'voices', half from Yamaha's existing synthesisers and half specially developed for the system. The basic array plots pitch vs time, but there are 16 layers for different, complex ways to manipulate sounds and the array also displays the notes as they play. One of these includes the ability to rotate the notes while maintaining their relationship in time (see videos below for more examples).

"In the digital age the problem of developing a musical instrument is one of developing a unique shape like a piano or saxophone has a unique shape," said Iwai. "The problem is that in the digital world everything is inside a black box and you can't get the physical feeling from that digital world. The new musical instrument for the 21st century has to have a relationship between shape, sound and interface and these have to match beautifully."
He has been working with Yamaha to turn it into a product for the last four years. Th £599 instrument is only available in the UK as the test market through 8 record shops, including Rooted Records in Bristol, as well as being sampled by South West music guru Peter Gabriel.

Monday, September 03, 2007

IBM stumbles onto single molecule switching

IBM nanotech researchers have stumbled onto something that may make a significant difference to the design and manufacture of logic devices in the future.

Researchers looking at the vibration of the Naphthalocyanine molecule found that they could use two hydrogen atoms in the organic molecule to switch states, providing an 1 or a 0. They have tried with many other molecules but previously it always changes shape which makes the switch unreliable.

“One of the beauties of doing exploratory science is that by researching one area, you sometimes stumble upon other areas of major significance,” said Gerhard Meyer, senior researcher in the nanoscale science group at the IBM Zurich lab. “Although the discovery of this breakthrough was accidental, it may prove to be significant for building the computers of the future.”

In the paper titled “Current-Induced Hydrogen Tautomerization and Conductance Switching of Naphthalocyanine Molecules,” in the US journal Science, IBM researchers describe the switching, and are saying that these molecular switches could one day lead to computer chips with speeds as fast as today's fastest supercomputers, but much smaller in size; with some speculating even building computer chips so small they could be the size of a speck of dust or fit on the tip of a needle.

The next step is to build a series of these molecules into a circuit, then figure out how to network those together into a molecular chip.

However, the trick is to propagate the state through multiple molecules to build logic gates where one molecule influences another, and that is difficult. I would also be surprised if this could be done at the kinds of speeds researchers are talking about and that the industry needs. Plus, this is an organic molecule and sensitive to heat, so there are many environmental issues to be tackled before we are anywhere near building computers out of single molecules of Naphthalocyanine.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Graceful degradation in encoding

An interesting element of the recent launch of a family of SD video codec cores from ARC is the use of 'graceful degradation' in the encoding process.
Depending on the resources available - and that can be power or memory - the cores can throw out various tools and reduce the quality of the encoding to extend the battery life or the recording time - this is all up to the designer and allows systems based on the cores to be differentiated through these engineering tradeoffs.

The five cores are based on the recently introduced VRaptor Multicore Architecture, each is programmable, encodes and decodes a wide range of popular video standards, and comes with optimized media processing elements including:
o Up to two 128-bit SIMD Media Processors
o A dual-channel media-optimized DMA engine
o Separate multi-standard encoding and decoding accelerators
o Programmable motion estimation accelerator
o SoC development tools
o Optimized video codecs:
o (encoders) H.264 BP, MPEG-4 SP/ASP, H.263 profile 0, and JPEG
o (decoders) H.264 BP, MPEG-4 SP/ASP, H.263 profile 0, VC-1 SP, MPEG-2 MP, MJPEG, JPEG, GIF, TIFF, and PNG

All this is very interesting when video becomes a key IP block for the next decade.

Powering chips by body warmth

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS in Erlangen, Germany, have developed a way of harnessing natural body heat to generate electricity to power low voltage logic devices.

While this won't power a cell phone, medical sensors may be able to function without power from a wall socket. Instead, they will draw all the power they need from the warmth of the human body. The respective data will be sent by a radio signal to the central monitoring station.

The researchers, with collleagues at the Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Measurement Techniques IPM and the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Applied Materials Research IFAM, are using thermoelectric generators, TEG for short, made from semiconductor elements that extract electrical energy simply from the temperature difference between a hot and a cold environment. Normally, a difference of several tens of degrees would be required in order to generate enough power, but the differences between the body’s surface temperature and that of its environment are only a few degrees.

“Only low voltages can be produced from differences like these,” said Peter Spies, manager of this sub-project at the IIS. A conventional TEG delivers roughly 200 millivolts, but electronic devices require at least one or two volts. “We combined a number of components in a completely new way to create circuits that can operate on 200 millivolts,” says Spies. “This has enabled us to build entire electronic systems that do not require an internal battery, but draw their energy from body heat alone.”

Thursday, August 23, 2007

VIA ships 1W x86 processor

To tackle deeply embedded and power sensitive applications, VIA has launched a 500MHz x86 processor that runs at under 1W.
The Eden ULV processor has been designed from the ground up to meet the low power requirements of a wide range of industrial, commercial and ultra mobile applications and has an idle power of 100mW.The 1W power level allows a 21mm x 21mm NanoBGA2 package to be used for more space sensitive applications.
The new processor can be combined with the ultra compact VIA CX700/M system media processor, an advanced all-in-one digital media chipset with a maximum operating power of just 3.5 watts, supporting a wide range of multimedia, connectivity and storage options and enabling system platforms with a maximum power of less than 10 watts.
It is being used by:

AAEON, Acrosser, Adlink, Advansus, Advantech, Aquila, Arbor, Avalue, Axiomtek, Biostar, Bona, Boser, Commate, E-TOP, Flexus, Freetech, Ibase, IEI, Inhand, IPOX, Kontron, Lanner, Liantec, Maple, Nexcom, Posiflex, Portwell, Termtek, Unication and Unicorn.

“With a maximum power of just 1W, the 500MHz VIA Eden ULV processor has finally brought x86 design into the realm of the embedded market,” said Richard Hung, Product Manager at Advantech. “This remarkably low power consumption has allowed our new PCM-4372 to provide all the power, performance and versatility of the x86 architecture to our customers.”

“The 500MHz VIA Eden ULV was the logical choice for our new 5.25” SBC, EBM-CX700 and B5 size slim PC, the ASM-CX700,” said Sam Wang, Vice-President of Avalue. “Now that VIA has brought to market an x86-based processor that doesn’t have the prohibitively high power consumption of other offerings, the benefits in terms of versatility, availability of compatible software and hardware, and performance can’t be overlooked.”

Integrated into the processor is the VIA StepAhead Technology Suite, which boasts an extensive array of performance-enhancing features including the VIA V4 bus at 400MHz, sixteen pipeline stages, branch prediction and an efficiency-enhanced 128KB full-speed exclusive L2 cache, ensuring the processor’s low power consumption doesn’t come at the expense of performance.
It also integrates VIA's PadLock Security Engine security tools to enable real-time military-grade encryption of data such as AES encryption, Secure Hash Algorithm SHA-1 and SHA-256, and a Montgomery Multiplier to accelerate the encryption process used under RSA and other public key transmissions as well as NX Execute Protection to prevent worms from propagating, and dual quantum based random number generators.

“Giving our customers the building blocks to create innovative systems and driving PC technology into new markets defines our ‘Small is Beautiful’ strategy,” said Richard Brown, Vice President of Corporate Marketing, VIA Technologies, Inc. “With its performance, energy efficiency and compact size, our new VIA Eden ULV processor provides a way for embedded developers to add real value to their systems and push the market forward.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

LSI shakeout continues with Infineon deal

The transformation of LSI Logic has settled down with the last remaining element - the GSM chip business - sold off to Infineon Technologies for what looks like a knock down price.
The E330m (£235m) deal is expected to close in Q4 and is for roughly the same as the project sales this year (the first six months saw sales of E150m), and Infineon expects a clearly positive EBITA contribution in 2008.
The 700 strong Mobility Products Group came from the April 2007 acquisition of Agere, and includes a design team and sales and marketing operation in Bracknell in the UK. Whether this becomes a standalone group for Infineon or merges with the Infineon design group in Bristol remains to be seen.
Another question is what this means for the comms element of the BlueOnyx strategy of a mobile server - that relied heavily on the Bluetooth and GSM element that came from the Mobility group, coupled with the storage capabilities of LSI. But buying in modules from a stronger player such as Infineon should not be a problem.
“Infineon’s strong commitment to the mobility market will ensure our customers continuity of the LSI product line, ongoing customer support and a broader portfolio of solutions to address their needs,” said Abhi Talwalkar, LSI president and chief executive officer. “LSI is fully committed to work with Infineon to provide a seamless transition for customers.”
Following the carve-out of Qimonda in 2006, Infineon is focusing on three key areas of business: Energy Efficiency, Communications and Security, having acquired Texas Instruments’ DSL CPE business earlier this year. In the Communication Solutions segment, Infineon has picked up new customers including Nokia, LG-Electronics, Panasonic and Samsung.

Friday, August 10, 2007

NI makes LabView multicore....

Embedded software tool vendor National Instruments has developed a multi-core version of its LabView graphical programming tool for the x86 architecture.
LabView 8.5 adds multicore support for PCs, embedded boards based on X86 processors and FPGA development systems. Running threads across multiple cores is allowing significant speed up of applications developed on the PC, such as test systems.
More importantly for embedded designed, NI has also made its real time operating system multi-core aware so that processes can be allocated to individual cores either manually or automatically to make the most of the system resources.
“Engineers and scientists depend on continually improving PC processors, operating systems and bus technologies to drive increased performance in their measurement and control systems,” said Dr. James Truchard, President, CEO and co-founder of National Instruments. “With the shift toward multicore processors on the PC, LabVIEW programmers benefit from a simplified graphical approach to multithreading, making it possible for engineers and scientists to maximise the performance of multicore technology with little to no change to their applications.”
With the parallel dataflow language of LabVIEW, users can easily map their applications to multicore and FPGA architectures for data streaming, control, analysis and signal processing. Building on the automatic multithreading capability of earlier versions, LabVIEW 8.5 scales user applications based on the total available number of cores and delivers enhanced thread-safe drivers and libraries to improve throughput for RF, high-speed digital I/O and mixed-signal test applications.

LabVIEW 8.5 also provides symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) with the LabVIEW Real-Time environment where designers of embedded and industrial systems automatically can load balance tasks across multiple cores without sacrificing determinism. With the latest version of LabVIEW, users can manually assign portions of code to specific processor cores to fine-tune real-time systems or isolate time-critical sections of code on a dedicated core. To meet the more challenging debugging and code optimisation requirements of real-time multicore development, engineers and scientists can use the new NI Real-Time Execution Trace Toolkit 2.0 to visually display timing relationships between sections of their code and the individual threads and processing cores where the code is executing.
The inherent parallelism of LabVIEW maps onto FPGA applications as well with an FPGA Project Wizard that automates I/O configuration, IP development and overall setup for common I/O, counter/timer and encoder applications. Using the FPGA Project Wizard, engineers and scientists can automate the generation of more complex high-speed DMA data transfer code. Additionally, LabVIEW 8.5 offers multichannel filtering and PID control functions commonly needed in machine automation to significantly reduce FPGA resources for high-channel-count applications.

… and NI adds state machine modelling tool

Statecharts are commonly used to design state machines to model the behaviour of real-time and embedded systems to depict event occurrences and responses for digital communication protocols, machine controllers and system-protection applications. LabVIEW 8.5 adds a new statechart module to help engineers and scientists design and simulate these event-based systems using familiar, high-level statechart notations based on the Unified Modeling Language (UML) standard.
Because the LabVIEW Statechart Module is based on the LabVIEW graphical programming language, engineers and scientists have a single platform to design, prototype and deploy their systems quickly, combining familiar statechart notation with real-world I/O running on deterministic real-time or
FPGA-based systems.
While this is not a move into full blown requirements capture and system modelling, it is a response to the recent acquisition of embedded UML tool provider Telelogic by IBM Rational. IBM is more focussed on the system and web software development, rather than embedded, and NI expects to pick up customers who used the I-logix state machine tool that was bought by Telelogic and so is now part of IBM Rational.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Infineon guns for Freescale in automotive engine control

Infineon Technologies is looking to take on Freescale Semiconductor's PowerPC chip in the engine management market in a move that is set to spark a price war.

Infineon is looking for ways to make its TriCore embedded microcontroller even more cost effective as it continues to back the architecture, says Peter Bauer, head of the Automotive, Industrial and Multimedia (AIM) group and a member of Infineon's board of directors. AIM is the larger of the two groups in the company, bringing in 70% of the revenue.

"We will discover how low in cost we can get the TriCore," he said, sparking a potential price war."We believe we can bring TriCore to the lowest cost engine management designs."

This is set to spark a price war if Freescale competes in price to keep its market share, but will bring sophisticated engine management technology to a wider range of vehicles in lower price brackets.

Bauer claims Infineon has 60% of engine management designs using TriCore. Infineon is currently the #2 automotive chip supplier in the world with a market share of 9.5%, behind Freescale's 11.2% (see global market right).

Intrinsity goes for low power with ARM variant...

High performance logic company Intrinisty has used its high speed logic on the ARM cortex R4 core, but instead of gong for the highest possible speed has gone for a low power option.
This is producing twice the clock speed possible with traditional logic, so the Cortex R4X core will run at 600MHz on TSMC's 65nm LP process. The processor implementations uses Intrinsity’s Fast14 1-of-N Domino Logic (NDL) technology, which enables faster circuit speeds while minimizing power consumption and area.
This may well be an admission of defeat for Intrinsity, which has had a high performance MIPS version since it started 10 years ago now, but moved to a licensing model in 2004 and includes both processors and high speed memory.
“Intrinsity FastCores incorporate Fast14 technology, and we use this to enable breakthrough embedded processor performance with very low power consumption,” said Bob Russo, CEO, Intrinsity. “By working closely with ARM on the development of the Cortex-R4X processor implementations, together we will be able to reach a much broader base of designers who are looking for ways to achieve higher performance without sacrificing power efficiency and bring new SoCs to market quickly.”
Moving to a low power approach makes sense for ARM, and the R4X is aimed at storage, printer and networking applications, so taking on MIPS which is more dominant in these areas.
“Mass storage, printing and networking applications need ever increasing levels of performance to handle higher data rates, more media services and new functionality such as encryption,” said Graham Budd, executive vice president and general manager, Processor Division at ARM. “Through this relationship we can extend the performance range of the Cortex-R4 processor to meet these requirements and those of new market domains.”
All versions of the Cortex-R4 processor offer embedded Error Correcting Code (ECC) technology which monitors memory accesses to detect and correct errors, providing very high reliability and availability.
ARM says the Cortex-R4X processor implementations are available for licensing immediately, but will be shipped in Q1 next year. Expect other versions to follow, and an Intrinsity version of the Cortex A8 (the A8X perhaps, but more likely the A9) would hit 1.8GHz and perhaps top 2GHz on a high performance process.

... and sets up acquisition prospect

This technology looks vital to ARM, so expect Intrinsity to be an acquisition target. While it has licensed the technology to ATI (now part of AMD) and has investment from PowerPC licensee AMCC, neither of these are a major stumbling block to being part of ARM and fits well with the processor and IP design philosophy. If this proves popular, and there is little reason why not, then ARM cannot afford NOT to buy it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

VOIP struggling?

What's happening with Voice over IP? Just as it is reaching the mass consumer consciousness, there's a blip. The second largest standalone VOIP service provider, SunRocket (no I'd never heard of them either but they've been running since 1994 in the US) has closed without warning, reports Associated Press. if this was a small operator, that wouldn't matter, but with 200,000 subscribers it is second only to Vonage.
Now who knows what the situation is (AP didn't) but the company fired Chief Technology Officer Mark Fedor and Chief Information Officer Robert Kramer at the end of June and then the chief financial officer, David Samuels, resigned on 2nd July - never a good sign! It has since laid off all 200 staff at its US call centre as well.
This might be mismanagement, or internal 'problems', but hopefully not a technology issue and just a blip on the growth curve. But remember that IPTV is a good five years behind VoIP in its technology development.

Scalable video standard emerges

The electronics industry now has a global, open standard for scalable video that will allow the same bitstream to be used for many different devices and connections. This is potentially huge for the hardware, software and content industry as it can dramatically simplify the costs and implementation of providing video.

The Scalable Video Coding (SVC) standard has been developed by the MPEG Joint Video Team (JVT) in collaboration with the International telecommunications Union and provides scalable video with full compatibility of base layer information so that it can be decoded by existing AVC decoders.

The SVC design enables the creation of a video bitstream that is structured in layers so that devices can decode either the full bitstream or a subset of it with the removal of enhancement layers. Data remaining after the removal of enhancement layers is still decodable, and these scalability modes include higher frame rates, increase of picture resolution and higher quality.

Unlike previous scalable compression solutions, the compression efficiency of SVC is very high and hardly distinguishable from "single-layer" AVC codecs in most operation modes. Due to a novel design which re-uses major components of ordinary AVC decoders and runs only one motion compensation loop, the complexity increase for supporting the scalability features in decoders is kept to a minimum, so decoders supporting SVC will not face a significant cost penalty.

The standard is open and global, being approved as Amendment 3 of the Advanced Video Coding (AVC) standard ISO/IEC 14496-10 (also published as ITU-T Rec. H.264).

A new amendment to MPEG-2 Systems also enables the carriage of scalable video data within MPEG-2 program and transport streams, and this is moving to the PDAM (proposed draft amendment) ballot stage of the ISO/IEC approval process. This allows the more efficient AVC video to be carried over MPEG-2 streams for higher spatial or temporal resolution, or higher picture fidelity at the same resolution. One application would be to provide broadcasters with the ability to efficiently deploy premium services without affecting their existing customer base. Set-top boxes with 1080p50/60 SVC capability on top of the existing HD AVC formats can be shipped to premium customers without the need to replace existing HD AVC set-top boxes.

Linux version of Microsoft Surface touch table

An interview in Gizmodo is offering the potential for an open source version of the multi-touch user interface software that is key to Microsoft's $10,000 Surface table PC.
Developed by Peter Hutterer, a researcher in the Wearable Computers Lab at the University of South Australia, MPX or Multi-Pointer X is a modification of the X Windows Server that allows multiple input devices to be used at the same time.

The demo (above) links an MPX-enabled Linux system to a Mitsubishi Electric's DiamondTouch display table which can recognize four different unique users. The software is still in its early stages but shows significant promise, as an open source version will open up more application development, which is vital, and bring down the price of such systems, which is even better. Combined with the new touch technology from Hitachi Displays (below) and its ability to make large panels, there is definitely significant potential for this technology.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Nintendo aims to overtake Sony

Here's a strange story for the electronics industry. A struggling games machine maker is now worth more than one of the strongest brands in the consumer electronics industry. That's right, Nintendo has overtaken Sony - maker not only of the Playstation, but TVs, audio, PCs etc etc - in market capitalisation on the strength of the Wii games machine to be come one of the top ten most valuable companies in Japan.
The Wii is a great design and a lesson in providing what people want rather than the latest technology, but Nintendo is vulnerable to a downturn through being a one-trick company.
Nintendo is now aiming to overtake Sony's 120m-selling PlayStation2 - Nintendo sold 5.8 million units of the Wii by this March, and aims to sell another 14 million during the current business year to March 2008, which makes 20m this year, so it will take four to five years to beat the PS2. That's a long way off, and competition is fierce and Nintendo still hasn't sorted out it's production scheduling problems.
This just goes to show, rightly or wrongly, the madness and emotion of the stock market!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

FIC launches Linux touchscreen phone

A Taiwanese consortium Openmoko, led by embedded electronics giant FIC, has launched its Linux 'open' phone, Neo 1973, named after the year FIC claims the mobile phone was invented.

The Neo 1973 uses:

* 2.8" VGA TFT color display
* Touchscreen, usable with stylus or fingers (see the Hitachi story below)
* 266MHz Samsung System on a Chip (ARM-11 based SOC)
* USB 1.1, switchable between Client and Host (unpowered) - interesting!
* Integrated Assisted GPS
* 2.5G GSM – quad band, voice, CSD, GPRS
* Bluetooth 2.0
* Micro SD slot
* High Quality audio codec

This incarnation will not work as the applications are not available that the operators demand, but this is the start of a more open generation of mobile phones using Linux that will stimulate the eco-system of mobile phone applications (and viruses of course) and eventually drive down the costs of smartphones, but it will take many years! All credit to FIC for starting the ball rolling in a serious way, and these guys know how to manufacture in volume to a price!

e-paper set to boom, but only if it gets colourful

The e-paper display business will surpass US$2.0bn a year in five year and surpass $4 billion in 2014 according to a new report from market researchers NanoMarkets. It expects that the arrival of high-quality colour e-paper technology, better encapsulation and the ability to print large e-paper displays will create new opportunities in smart shelves, point-of-purchase (POP) displays, cell phone displays and disposable electronics.

Key findings include:
· Colour is the next big thing: Colour will enable e-paper to penetrate deeper into certain market segments including cell phone displays and signage and it will also help e-paper compete directly with OLED or LCD displays. The first e-paper technology developer able to commercialize colour e-paper at a reasonable price is likely to grab a huge share of the market
· Non-electrophoretic materials to gain market share: Both liquid crystals and electrochromic materials will grow in importance as platforms for e-paper, although e-paper displays based on electrophoretic materials will continue to take the largest share of the market. By 2014 e-paper made with electrophoretic materials will have reached almost $2.0 billion, with liquid crystal based e-paper at $1.5 billion and electrochromic e-paper at just under a $1.0 billion.
· More e-paper in cell phones: Cell phone sub-displays - and eventually main displays - are the high-volume opportunities for e-paper firms. Motorola has already been quite successful with its Motophone, the first cell phone to use e-paper. The best thing that e-paper makers have on their side in the cell phone market is the ability of their displays to be read in sunlight, an advantage that no other display technology can provide. By 2014 the cell phone sector will generate $763 million in e-paper display revenues.
· E-paper perfect for pricing displays: Smart shelves and POP displays are a "tremendous opportunity" for e-paper, enabling stores to change shelf prices from a central location for promotions, adjust for changes in wholesale pricing and make corrections when pricing on the shelves is incorrect. E-paper's low power consumption means this displays can be run from batteries and its flexibility makes it easy to fix to shelves and walls. By 2014, NanoMarkets expects e-paper to generate $1.2 billion from this sector.

Hitachi to drive touch screens into mobile phones

From my story on the front page of Electronics Weekly this week, new touchscreen technology from Hitachi Displays is set to make a real difference to the way mobile phones are designed and used.
Hitachi has developed a new passive technique for touch sensing on mobile phones that does not involve the traditional sensor technologies such as resistive or capacitative sensing. This is a key area where mobile phones in particular fail and could make touch screens much more reliable for use in many different applications.
The technique uses ordinary thin film transistors (TFTs) around the edge of the screen that can detect a change in light when a finger touches the screen. Algorithms are then used to sense where the finger is. This is all integrated into the display, adding touch screen for little extra cost.
“We want to develop a touch sensor without any mechanical components,” said Matt Tapping, sales manager at Hitachi Europe. Hitachi Displays has developed a prototype system and is planning production for the end of next year.
However, at the moment this technique would not be able to handle the newer techniques such as ‘pinching’ used on the Apple iPhone (see below). “This would have to be used for soft keys,” said Tapping.
Future versions could support the more complex user interfaces I expect but that would need more transistors and more complex detection algorithms, and devices such as the iPhone will be able to support premium prices for touchscreens anyway.
But the potential of this is huge, as this technique can also be used screens for all sorts of applications including digital TV where cost and reliability of touch screens have prevented new user interface techniques being used.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Widescreen VGA on mobile phones

Hitachi is shipping a wide VGA screen (see below on VGA screens coming through) to KDDI in Japan for its AU model, particularly for Web browsing. The 864 x 480 screen is an odd size but this allows full screen 800 pixel wide Web pages and leaves 64 pixels left on the side for icons!
QVGA is still dominant in Europe but Hitachi Displays is confident this will move over to WVGA once power consumption and content issues are addressed (which is why the story from QCT below on content!)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What's an iPhone? - the breakdown

Website to an iPhone apart to find out what was in it. Much of this has already been suggested (Marvell's wifi chip rather than Broadcom's, the Infineon S-Gold GSM/EDGE phone chip with ARM processor) but it is all in one place and confirms things like the memory and applications processor from Samsung, DAC from Wolfson in Scotland and Bluetooth from CSR in Cambridge, and power amplifier from SkyWorks.

This of course means that this stripped down variant of the OS X operating system for the iPhone (embedded OS X, if you like) has been ported to the ARM architecture for the Samsung chip, a 700MHz ARM1176JZF core, and so could run on TI's OMAP chips, for example, or many other ARM microcontrollers. This is potentially great news for embedded system designers. The bad news is that Apple as said it won't be released to the outside world. Shame.

The ifixit breakdown:

* Samsung chip underneath the metal shield on the left side of the board on the left. Ours reads K9MCGD8U5M. The 4 GB model that Think Secret took apart had K9HBG08U1M on it, which is a 4 GB chip.
* Samsung memory stacked with an ARM-architecture processor, Part number 339S0030ARM, 8900B 0719, NOD4BZ02, K4X1G153PC-XGC3, ECC457Q3 716 shows it to be a Samsung processor rather than a Mavell Xscale. The processor is likely stacked on the SDRAM, which could be two 512 Megabit chips. The processor could have H.264 and MP3 hardware decoding built in.
* The chip above the ARM is a Wolfson audio chip. Part numbers WM8758BG and 73AFMN5.
* The chip underneath the ARM is a Linear Technology 4066 USB Power Li-Ion Battery Charger, which Apple uses in the iPods as well.
* The chip on the bottom center has this text: MARVELL, W8686B13, 702AUUP. This is Marvell's 802.11b/g 18.4mm2 chip.
* The chip in the upper right is a Skyworks GSM/Edge Power amplifier (SKY77340)
* The silver chip to the left of the Skyworks chip reads CSR 41814 3A06U K715FB. This is a CSR BlueCore4-ROM WLCSP single chip radio and baseband IC for Bluetooth 2+EDR.
* The chip with the blue dot on it is rumored to be an Intel Wireless Flash 32 MB chip. Part numbers 1030W0YTQ2, 5716A673, and Z717074A. EE Times adds the part #PF38F1030W0YTQ2.
* The chip in the lower right some claim this is an Apple-branded chip, but it's purpose is currently unknown.
* The chip in the lower left is an Infineon PMB8876 S-Gold 2 multimedia engine. Part numbers: 337S3235, 60708, and EL629058S03.

VGA screens on a mobile phone

While mobile phone screens aren't large, phone makers are increasing the resolution to improve the quality of the user interface, particularly with games. The latest development system from Qualcomm shows what can be done with VGA, and they claim it's better than the Sony Playstation Portable (PSP). This is the system they send out to the software developers in advance of the handset designs and is a demo of the level of quality we will see in phones (of all kinds, not just Qualcomm ones) over the next year

Carrying your computing state

While Steve Jobs and the iPod is about carrying your 'entertainment state' around with you, Sanjay Jha of Qualcomm (above) has the vision of carrying your 'computing state' around with you. This is the idea behind Snapdragon, a chip that will combine computing, networking and possibly communications, and allow you to carry around your computing state - you plug the unit into a screen and keyboard and hey presto! It's a bigger version of the Yoggie PC-on-a- USB stick idea or LSI's pocket Bluetooth server, but it changes the way we think about consumer products.

Wireless camera demo

At a recent 'Wireless Symposium', Cambridge chip startup Artimi was demonstrating its Wireless USB capability, linking a digital camera via a USB port to a dongle, to another dongle plugged into a PC. So my apologies for my face coming up on the screen!
Artimi is focusing on the cable replacement market, and linking things like external hard disk drives and cameras wirelessly.
Much as I wish them, and any chip startup, well, I worry that there isn't the margin in the market for these devices. Yes, they point to HDMI cables costing $70 to $100, and that's where companies such as Pulse-Link are aiming, and that makes sense. But will people pay $50 for a pair of dongles to replace a $5 cable? No.
So the issue comes down to the consumer equipment makers and getting these chips designed in - Artimi is claiming some success on this front, especially with the hard disk makers, and if we see this starting to happen by the end of the year, or Q1 next year (which is possible) then cable replacement becomes feasible.

Friday, June 29, 2007

iPhone leads to a lot of nonsense

Today's launch of the iPhone has given analysts a rush of blood to the head. In my analysis for Electronics Weekly, it seems that being able to watch TV on mobile phones has all the makings of a new technology bubble. It will come in time, but the initial rush and over-optimistic figures point to a flush of expectation rather than reality.
Analysts are extrapolating from the success of Internet sites such as YouTube and the iPhone's predicted One Touch YouTube access to make predictions that are pure nonsense.
Recent presentations from ABI Research have predicted a growth in mobile TV subscribers from a million this year to 250 million in three years time. Were it to happen, this is a phenomenal growth rate and reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Internet bubble.
While the growth in YouTube subscribers is certainly true, there is no guarantee that people will pay to watch these videos over their mobiles. And pay they will have to, as this will be a revenue generating activity for both the websites and the operators.

Then there are predictions of HDTV on mobiles. The OMAP3 chip from Texas Instruments is adding this capability — and it may well be needed as showing a VGA video (or, worse, quarterVGA) on a large flatscreen looks horrible. But there are problems in downloading large HDTV clips to a phone, storing it on that phone, displaying it and then transferring it to a big display.
Does this mean that the phone will have to have an expensive mini-HDMI connector to plug into the back of your large LCD flatscreen display? Or are we waiting for an UltraWideBand wireless link to transmit a clip at 480Mbit/s over the two metres to the TV? If we are, we will have to wait quite a while for the technology in a form that can be integrated into both the phone and the TV.
There is a small but growing market for mobile TV — for viewing short clips of sport or news, for live action that you can’t wait to see and for boring trips on public transport.
These huge growth predictions do no one any favours and present the electronics business as a group of credulous fools who can be taken to the cleaners all over again by the financiers.

STMicro sets up micro fuel cell lab

STMicroelectronics has teamed up with a French public technological research organisation, CEA, to develop and commercialise new miniaturized energy sources such as solid-state microbatteries and micro-fuel cells. The two companies will establish a common laboratory in Tours and Grenoble, France, that will pursue advanced research in fields. Other promising energy generation, conversion and storage technologies that will be investigated include thermoelectric and mechanical scavenging techniques that convert, for example, physical motion into electrical power, always with a focus on low power applications.
ST, which has a major manufacturing facility in Tours, and CEA Liten (Laboratory of Innovation for New Energy Technologies and Nanomaterials), a research laboratory of CEA based in Grenoble, France, will collaborate on a four-year program to develop new miniaturized technologies for energy solutions with a particular emphasis on powering mobile phones, laptop computers and other portable electronic products.
The collaboration will involve more than fifty researchers, distributed approximately between sites in Grenoble and Tours.
“We have a long experience in working with ST, including successful previous collaborations with its Tours teams in this field. We know the strength of their expertise, which was a factor in making us decide to set up a common lab between Tours and Grenoble”, said Jean Therme, director of the Technological Research Division at the CEA. “The manufacturing know-how of ST will be an important asset in the industrialization of the new technologies we will develop.”
The joint research team will work on a variety of projects. These include micro-fuel cells specifically designed to power mobile phones using fuel that can be topped up at any time, thin-film microbatteries for use in applications such as “smart labels”, which are expected to replace existing barcode technology, and Radio-Frequency ID tags, and the development of new energy scavenging technologies. These new technologies, many of which will exploit ST’s expertise in manufacturing using extremely thin films of materials, are expected to bring multiple benefits in terms of lower cost, size or weight as well as providing more environment-friendly solutions that will be widely welcomed by consumers. Thin, solid state microbatteries will also open up new opportunities in areas such as medical implants where replacing or recharging conventional batteries is difficult or impossible.
“The proliferation of portable devices has created a huge demand for energy sources such as rechargeable batteries but existing solutions still leave room for improvements in terms of performance, operating life and environmental impact. We believe that the complementary skills of ST and CEA Liten will lead to the development and industrialization of cost-effective new technologies that will meet these challenges”, said Carmelo Papa, Executive Vice President and General Manager of ST’s Industrial and Multisegment Sector (IMS).
The R&D group of ST’s IMS organization has been working for several years developing know-how and expertise in the field of micro fuel cells and microbatteries, with research teams based in Tours and Catania working together as well as with research institutes in France and Italy. The agreement between ST and CEA Liten will further strengthen collaboration with important research institutes and will reinforce ST’s position in this important sector.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Synthetic biology

Here's a strange new world, and one that was starting to emerge at the recent Design Automation Conference - synthetic biology. This is using biology to emulate what we do with current silicon technology.
Researchers are looking at ways to use bacteria and biological systems to provide electronic systems such as massively parallel image processor. This 'synthetic biology' had its own session at DAC for the first time this year and was reported in Electronics Weekly.
"We have reprogrammed the genomes of living cells to construct massively parallel biological computers capable of processing two-dimensional images at a theoretical resolution of greater than 100 megapixels per square inch," said Jeffrey Tabor,a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco. The researchers changed the genes in the bacteria to give out a pigment-producing enzyme under the control of red light. Shining an image onto a plate with the bacteria on it then acts as a photographic plate.
But they went a step further to use this as an edge detection system. Bacteria in dark areas were programmed to produce a membrane-diffusible molecule which stimulated the pigment. At the same time they also produced a repressor protein which made them immune go this, while the illuminated bacteria produced neither the repressor nor the pigment. If an illuminated bacterium was next to a dark area it received the inducer and produced the pigment. If an illuminated bacterium is alongside the dark area beyond some critical threshold for inducer, it produced no pigment.
"The result of this logic is that pigment is produced only at the boundary of light and dark and in this way, the community of independent cellular computers functions together to compute the edge of the image," said Tabor.

Where will the next semiconductor crash come from?

This has been something that has been concerning me for a while - life is good for the semi guys, but history shows the downturn will come, and it comes from unexpected places.
Traditional theory would predict that the new generation of 12in fabs with 45nm and 32nm coming through in 2009 would create over-supply of chips, driving down the average selling price and causing recession in the industry. But a close eye is kept on this to avoid the problem.
Instead, the problem will come from an unexpected direction - those 8in fabs. The semiconductor industry will face a glut of capacity in the next two years that will fundamentally change the way systems are designed, says the president of the consumer LSI division of Samsung Semiconductor, the second largest chip maker in the world.
"By 2010 the 8in fabs will become severely underutilised, by around 30%, and product pricing will be continuously slashed," said Oh-Hyun Kwon. "That creates a vicious cycle of no investment to how to utilise the fabs is a key point."
This is where the oversupply will come and where the prices will crash.
That oversupply of 130nm and 90nm capacity should be used for devices that don't shrink well such as analogue, RF, sensors and micro machined devices, he said. These are then combined with digital devices made in 45nm and 32nm in system in the same package, rather than integrating all these elements into a single chip.
But this will migrate to chips that are built with the different technologies on the same die in 3D layers, and will change the way chips are designed and packaged, with system-in-a-package becoming much more important.
"We are moving to 45nm circuits at 45nm and then to 3D transistors at 22nm, and we need on chip 3D analysis tools for 3D LSIs," he said.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

WiBree finally merges with Bluetooth group

Finally! Nokia's WiBree low power version of Blutooth has merged with the Bluetooth Special Interest group (which is perhaps where it should have been all the time to avoid confusion but being outside got it much more attention than it would have had otherwise!).
This is important for standardisation and WiBree will be first point of contact for Bluetooth connections and to avoid confusion.
Wibree consumes only a fraction of the power of classic Bluetooth radios. In many cases it makes it possible to operate these devices for more than a year without recharging.
Using Bluetooth technology's high consumer awareness (86% globally), the Bluetooth SIG's large membership of 8000 companies) and its development and qualification programs, the ultra low power solution will be integrated faster and at a lower cost to the industry and consumers.
"By including or referencing other wireless technologies like ultra wideband for high speed applications, near field communication (NFC)for association and now Wibree for ultra low power applications under the well-established Bluetooth profiles, we are opening up a host of new applications and functionality while keeping the user experience consistent," said Michael Foley, executive director of Bluetooth SIG. "Our members have been asking for an ultra low power Bluetooth solution. With Nokia's development and contribution to the Bluetooth specification with Wibree, we will be able to deliver this in approximately one year."

Wibree's development started at the Nokia Research Centre in 2001 and was launched in October 2006. So far Broadcom, Casio, CSR, Epson, ItoM, Logitech, Nordic Semiconductor, ST Microelectronics, Suunto, Taiyo Yuden and Texas Instruments have contributed to the interoperability specification, profiles and use case definition of Wibree in their respective areas of expertise and will continue this work in the
Bluetooth SIG working groups. Several new companies, including device, watch and access systems manufacturers will join the finalisation of the specification. Once the specification is finalised, the technology will be made broadly available to the
industry via the Bluetooth SIG.

Price and power war looms for ARM M3 microcontrollers

STMicroelectronics is pushing a new microcontroller based on the ARM Cortex-M3 core, the STM32 line, challenging start-up Luminary Micro which launched $1 parts last year.
The STM32F103 “Performance” line, with 72MHz clock frequency, or the STM32F101 “Access” line, with 36MHz clock frequency. Both lines offer from 32K to 128K of embedded Flash memory but differ in maximum SRAM size and peripheral combinations. At 72MHz, executing from Flash, the STM32 consumes only 36mA, which ST claims is the lowest power consumption in the 32bit market, corresponding to 0.5mA/MHz.
Luminary Micro were the first to launch an ARM Cortex microcontroller using the M3 core over a year ago, and now have 27 variants starting from $1, so there is tremendous price pressure in this market as ST's Access range starts at $1.80. Power figures for the Luminary parts are hard to come by as a lot of the figures are still pending, but from the data sheet the power is 115mW (Idd of 35mA at 3.3V for the LM3S101) or 5.75mW/MHz at 20MHz, which seems a substantial difference.
“Until now, 16bit and 32bit designers have often been faced with difficult choices, involving compromises between factors such as cost, power, and performance and whether to use industry-standard or proprietary platforms,” said Jim Nicholas, general manager of ST’s microcontroller division. “By eliminating the need to make these compromises, the STM32 will lead the obvious convergence of the 16bit and 32bit MCU markets.”
Peripherals on the ST parts include up to 128KB embedded Flash, up to 20KB of RAM, up to two ADCs (12-bit at 1 microsecond conversion time), up to three USARTs; up to two SPI (18MHz master/slave); up to two I2C; up to three 16-bit timers (4 input capture/4 output compare/4 PWM each) and a dedicated 6-PWM timer with embedded dead times for regulation and motor control vector drive applications, as well as USB, CAN, and seven DMA channels.
ST is pushing the low power applications such as medical glucose and cholesterol monitors as well as industrial PLCs, domestic appliances, domestic and industrial security, fire and HVAC systems, and consumer/PC applications such as card readers and biometrics.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Scratching the Surface

Microsoft has followed the Apple lead and done some really neat software for the user interface (for once). The Surface is a table PC (which has been around in places like Bristol's Watershed for years) but now adds a touch screen software for that surface (hence the name).
One demo shows the use with a phone (above), linking automatically via Bluetooth when placed on the table and easily transferring pictures to and from the phone. Brilliant!
The other shows a group working on the same set of photos, moving and manipulating them by hand (below).
The main thing I would worry about is the lifetime of the touchscreen and the initial costs - for a lot of the corporate applications (with the high price) a vertical touchscreen seems better, and we have those already. The phone example, which needs a table, is more suited to the home or casual environment and I'm not sure this wil be priced for that market.

A PC on a USB stick

Could you fit a PC into a USB stick? Israeli startup Yoggie Security Systems has done that, creating a 500MHz Linux computer in your pocket.
The Yoggie Pico uses a 520MHz processor from Marvell (the former StrongArm PA processor line from Intel) and it runs the full Linux6.2 operating system.
This allows Yoggie to provide 13 security applications such as anti-virus, firewall and anti-phishing in a USB2.0 stick to protect notebook PCs. All the network traffic runs from the modem or wireless LAN through the stick controlled by a separate memory engine in the notebook, not the central processor.
“The bottleneck is always the network and not the PCI bus or the USB, and that’s why there is no degradation in performance,” said Shlomo Toubol, founder and chief executive of Yoggie. The signatures and rules are updated automatically by the stick every five minutes.
The operating system is kept secure in a protected 128Mbyte flash memory chip and loaded into another 128Mbyte flash to execute to prevent hacking. It runs with128Mbytes of DRAM memory.
Three of the applications have been bought in, including the anti-virus with regular virus signature updates, while the others have been developed in house or are open source, says Toubol.
The company is about to appoint distributors in the UK for both consumer and enterprise applications. For companies, the USB stick can also be used to prevent access to Websites and to prevent the PC being used without the stick, but there is password protection so the PC could be used in an emergency.
The potential however is for this to be a very compact portable PC that just needs to be plugged into a screen, keyboard and network connection, and Yoggie is looking at new applications.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Young Engineer of the Year deadline approaches

The deadline for the 2007 Young Engineer for Britain entries is approaching on May 31st.
This comes hot on the heels of the news that two previous year’s winners went on last week to scoop top prizes amounting to $19,500 at the Intel sponsored International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Alberquerque, New Mexico. Andrew Nowell (19) from Nottingham and David Badger from Sheffield won the right to travel to America as part of their prizes from the 2006 Young Engineer for Britain competition last September.
The Young Engineer for Britain has a £2,000 top prize and the opportunity to emulate Andrew and David’s success in America. Eleven regional judging events begin in Belfast on 12 June and finishes at the University of Sunderland on 17 July (see below) and each regional event itself offers a range of valuable prizes, including a new award from REKTN (Resource Efficiency Knowledge Transfer Network) for the project doing the most to sustain energy. The regional finals also provide the opportunity to qualify for the National Final, which takes place at the Annual Celebration of Engineering at the Old Royal Navy College in Greenwich on 17 September.
There are four awards categories in the competition and two eligible age
groups: 12 -16 and 16 -19. The awards categories are design and innovation; product development and marketability; engineering craftsmanship and finish; integration and application of electronics.
Regional winners in each of these categories can win £150, whilst national winners can win £800. Overall regional winners receive £200 and automatically qualify for the national final and there are a number of wild cards at the discretion of the panel judges, who are drawn from industry and who specialise in one or more of the judging criteria. All cash awards are shared between students and their schools.
Schools have been able to enter the 2007 competition on line at the Young Engineers’ web site

Regional events:

Date - Region - Location
12/06/07 - Northern Ireland - Odyssey Centre, Belfast
21/06/07 - North West - Salford University
22/06/07 - Scotland - Crowne Plaza Hotel, Glasgow
28/06/07 - South East and London - Surrey University, Guilford
02/07/07 - South West - FAA Museum, Yeovilton
03/07/07 - East - Anglia University, Chelmsford
05/07/07 - East Midlands - Nottingham Trent University
06/07/07 - West Midlands - Thinktank at Millenium Point
10/07/07 - Yorks and Humberside - Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield
16/07/07 - Wales - Millenium Stadium, Cardiff
17/07/07 - North East - University of Sunderland

"There is still time to enter this major competition, which sets out to identify the nation’s top young engineering entrepreneurs. Much has been said about the importance of engineering to the future of the country and by entering this competition, students can make a vital start on this path,” said Young Engineers’ Project Manager, Joanne Phillips.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Qualcomm looks to put a micro display into Bluetooth headset

Communications chip maker QUALCOMM has teamed up with a Taiwanese Bluetooth headset maker to integrate Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) displays into the next generation of Ubixon's stereo headsets.
The reflective displays, based on Interferometric Modulation (IMOD) technology, require no backlighting and can be viewed in bright sunlight and in a wide range of environments and are lower power than other display technologies, claims Qualcomm.
Details are very sketchy, but this sounds like a display attached to the earpiece, forming the User Interface (and these direct displays work better close to the eye).
The problem is then getting all that display data over the Bluetooth link, although with more memory in the earpiece it could just send updates. Great for a more static display, which would use less power and not be so sensitive to switching speed.
This also ties in well with Qualcomm's SnapDragon chip to add more computing to phones and consumer devices.
MEMS uses semiconductor-like and thin-film manufacturing processes to produce tiny and highly reliable mechanical devices for the displays with micron resolution.
"We are excited to work with Ubixon toward the common goal of delivering innovative solutions to end users," said Dr John Batey, vice president and general manager of QUALCOMM MEMS Technologies. "With the delivery of the industry's first direct view MEMS displays, we are providing technology that enables mobile devices to be used in more environments and for more hours per charge, thereby enhancing consumers' user experience."
More on the technology.
Ubixon started with headsets but is an emerging developer of ubiquitous portable consumer devices. Headquartered in Seoul, its parent company Uclick is a South Korea-based financial Internet portal and technology company.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

V is for Venture Capital

A wonderful pastiche of the 'V is for Vendetta' and 'The Matrix' film genre from MBA students at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School in the US who have obviously talked to the more aggressive, grasping VC funds!
Includes classic lines like - "Remember - use 5 times EBITDA" and other sad phrases but highlights the challenge of dealing with people who are much more experienced with money!

Broadcom plays off ARM and MIPS

Broadcom is licensing processor cores from the two arch competitors ARM and MIPS Technologies.
It is licensing the ARM Cortex-M3 for wireless designs and the MIPS 74K announce today for designs over 1GHz such as digital TV, set-top boxes, next generation DVD players/recorders, broadband access, PON, residential gateways and VoIP. Broadcom was the first to license the 74K core in January as an early access customer.
“The rapid convergence of digital devices and the emergence of new consumer markets, including IPTV, HD DVD, Blu-ray Disc and 802.11n, are driving the demand for superior performance, lower system costs and low power consumption,” said Jack Browne, vice president of marketing at MIPS Technologies.
However this is a complex beast with a 17-stage pipeline employing a combination of out-of-order dispatch and asymmetric dual-issue. This gives the higher frequency and higher performance with lower area and power, with 1.7sq mm core area and 0.76 mW/MHz in TMSC's general purpose 65nm process.
Broadcom is using the ARM M3 in a multiple-use licensing agreement for wireless LAN (802.11g,b and n,presumably) and Bluetooth. The key is the Thumb2 instruction set that combines both 16bit and 32bit instructions to keep code size down.
“The superior code density of the ARM Cortex-M3 processor enables a reduced memory footprint while delivering significant performance advantages over existing designs,” said Robert Rango, Group Vice President and General Manager of Broadcom’s Wireless Connectivity Group.
“Broadcom has long been an innovator in the wireless space, creating groundbreaking solutions enabling the delivery of innovative content in the home, office and on-the-move,” said Graham Budd, executive vice president and general manager of the Processor Division at ARM. “By combining Broadcom’s industry-leading wireless expertise, with the ARM Cortex-M3 processor, Broadcom has the building blocks for a compelling solution, tailored to the specific demands and rigors of the evolving consumer electronics market.”

Monday, May 21, 2007

Motorola mops up Modulus

Late last week saw Motorola continuing to strengthen its position in video by acquiring Modulus Video (I don't really think it's a merger, given the relative sizes of the companies).
These guys have been developing great video compression algorithms and systems purely focussed on H.264/AVC for IPTV, cable, broadcast and satellite systems, such as the ME2000 SD/HD encoder above, and has been working with Motorola for the last two years anyway.
This now combines Broadbus, Kreatel, Tut Systems and Netopia for an integrated, end-to-end video delivery system for multiple network architectures.
Great for the US, which is where it seems all the video attention is - we now need to see whether they will start taking Europe a bit more seriously, particularly as IPTV is being driven from here (which is why Kreatel was so important!)
As ever it will be a potential problem for existing Modulus partners such as Sencore, who supplied decoders to them, and other customers, although they were never big on saying who those customers might be.

More of a worry would be Mark Magee, the VP Technology & Chief Architect and Co-Founder, who has avoided Motorola before. He worked at Compression Labs Inc, which was acquired by Motorola / General Instrument, and was before co-founding Modulus Video, he was VP of Engineering for DiviCom (acquired by Harmonic). There he was the architect of the DiviCom MPEG-2 encoder and multiplexer and helped define and develop other DiviCom core products, leading a team of 180 engineers across three R&D centres: this is a man who has done the big teams and the startups and should not need to work now - keeping his expertise will be an interesting challenge for Motorola.

But hey: "Our team will benefit from Motorola's rich heritage and leadership of video delivery expertise," said Bob Wilson, Chairman and CEO of Modulus Video. "Modulus Video will bring to Motorola a software-centric platform that ensures flexibility, reduced cost and fast development time."
"Motorola is committed to offering an integrated, end-to-end video portfolio designed to meet the current and next-generation requirements of operators," said Dan Moloney, President, Home and Networks Mobility business at Motorola. "As consumers demand more high definition video and interactive services, the need for advanced compression technology is increasingly important. As part of its advanced real-time video encoding products, Modulus Video has a powerful architecture and product development framework that is well suited for continued technological advancement."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Electric Cloud tackles variants of embedded software

US startup Electric Cloud is looking to Europe for its international expansion to tackle the complexity of embedded software.
With different versions for different products, different countries and different operators, companies like Nokia can have up to 3000 different versions of the software for their phones. This is all constantly being updated and needs to be managed to make sure they all operate correctly and are put into the right phones.
The company has developed technology for handling all these different variants and their updates, which can be daily. The company is focussing on silicon chip and equipment suppliers in the mobile phone arena.
The ElectricCommander tool manages the software builds, while the ElectricAccelerator uses patented technology to accelerates the builds by spreading them across multiple computers in the network, cutting build times from hours to minutes and saving significant time with thousands of builds. The ElectricInsight tool provides visibility into the builds by mining the information produced by ElectricAccelerator to provide an easy-to-understand, graphical representation of the build structure for performance analysis and optimisation.
Companies such as Agilent Technologies, Force 10, Intuit, Kyocera, LG, LSI Logic, Mercury Computer Systems, Motorola, Qualcomm, and Samsung already use the tools in the US and the company has set up its European headquarters in Oxford, UK and has appointed Andrew Patterson its European business director.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

IBM's airgap nanotechnology - video

IBM has developed a technique for the ‘self assembly’ of air gaps around nano-scale wires, using them to act as the dielectric to speed up performance.
Researchers at IBM’s Almaden Research Centre in California and the T.J. Watson Research Centre in New York state used a mix of compounds that is poured onto a silicon wafer with the wired chip patterns, then baked. The compounds self assemble to create uniform holes 20nm in diameter around the wires, creating a vacuum dielectric.
"This is the first time anyone has proven the ability to synthesize mass quantities of these self-assembled polymers and integrate them into an existing manufacturing process with great yield results," said Dan Edelstein, IBM Fellow and chief scientist of the self-assembly airgap project. "By moving self assembly from the lab to the fab, we are able to make chips that are smaller, faster and consume less power than existing materials and design architectures allow."
Test chips use 15 percent less energy or run 35% faster, and the technique is expected to be used in the POWER server chips in 2009.
See more on IBM and HP nanotechnology here.

The HD fridge arrives

I suppose it was inevitable, but the first refrigerator with High Definition TV has finally arrived.
Announced in November but launched yesterday in the US by LG of Korea, the $4,000 fridge integrates LG's fifth-generation ATSC-QAM-NTSC digital television tuner to pick up terrestrial or cable HD. The only problem is, it displays it on a 15-inch LCD screen.
Whether people will pay the premium for HD on a small screen fridge is debatable, although there are always the 'bleeding edge' consumers.I guess the absence of any other competing fridges, even with a seven month lag between announcing and shipping, says something about the expected demand.
The unit has a DVD connection on top of the unit as well as a four-inch Weather & Info Centre LCD display that delivers personalized weather forecasts based on a consumer's geographic area, along with the forecast for four surrounding cities, via a wireless pager network. I can see this being a reason for a display, but
a) it is separate (HD might make a difference here) and
b) you can get a cheaper fridge with this on anyway
And harking back to the first 'killer app' for the home computer, storing recipes, the LG Recipe Bank has 100 pre-loaded recipes from the Culinary Institute of America.
There's also a digital photo album, so you can see your kids in HD, uploaded via a USB port (the pictures,not the kids)and date/time clock, calendar with anniversary alarm and more. (I'm expecting a wireless sync with Outlook - that would be more useful!)
"As an appliance industry leader in digital convergence, LG Electronics is constantly seeking out ways in which we can create innovative, stylish and functional products," said John Herrington, president of LG Electronics USA, Digital Appliances. "LG is taking this innovation one step further with the introduction of our HDTV Refrigerator by incorporating additional features that further enhance the user experience, from LG's industry-leading digital TV tuner to the Weather & Info Center for weather forecasts, uploadable photo album and recipe bank."
And of course it has an ice generator!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

RFID to blockout DVDs?

NXP Semiconductor and Kestrel Wireless have teamed up to add RFID tags to consumer equipment, including DVDs, to prevent theft, in a very interesting story.
The key is that the RFID chips activate the equipment at the point of sale, so stealing them is useless. And it fits nicely into the existing point of sale infrastructure - so far, so good. Now this I can understand for an MP3 player, falt screen TV, even a electronic toothbrush, but how on earth does an RFID tag disable or enable a DVD, which is passive?
It turns out there is another factor floating around here - an electro-optic film has to be added to the DVD, and this is activated by the RFID tag. Now, there are some distinct issues here, not least the power required to activate the film quickly and effectively, which is not possible through existing point of sale RFID terminals. An then there is the cost of adding the film to the DVD (both in itself and the manufacturing process) which will be non-trivial - this is not just a piece of plastic on top of the disk. And what about reliability - will the film slowly darken over time?
I suspect there's a long way to go on this!

Recycling your FPGA!

Altera has launched its FPGAs into the higher volume market for PCI Express (PCIe), Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) and Serial RapidIO (SRIO) by 'recycling' its existing higher performance parts.
The 2.5Gbit/s ArriaGX parts are based on the same die as the existing 6.25Gbit/s StratixII GX parts, but run at a lower speed (reducing the test and support costs) and use lower cost packaging. This has significantly reduced the cost of the parts, putting it just 20% more expensive than the low cost Cyclone 3 family.
The five members of the family provide up to 12 full-duplex transceiver channels and start at $50 for the 50,000 logic element (LE) part. The family ranges from 21,580 to 90,220 logic elements, up to 4.5 Mbits of embedded memory and up to 176 multipliers, and is built on TSMC’s established 90-nm process.
The parts are included in the latest release of the Quartus II design tool, released today, and because these are based on existing die, start shipping in volume next month.
“What differentiates Arria GX devices from other offerings in the market is not one particular element but a combination of powerful attributes,” said Jordan Plofsky, Altera’s senior vice president of marketing. “Primarily, customers are getting a very reliable product—proven transceiver technology built on a proven process. Next, the price is unparalleled for such a comprehensive product. Finally, we designed it to maintain the best levels of signal integrity—each member of this family is available in flip-chip packages. These are the key elements our customers told us were most important for the applications we are targeting.”

Monday, April 23, 2007

Elpida shows the way forward for chip packaging

Akita Elpida Memory has put together a Multi Chip Package (MCP) with 20 stacked dies, that measures just 1.4mm thick, making it the world's thinnest.
Akita Elpida is a new company established in July, 2006 by one of the leading global DRAM suppliers, Elpida, to focus on semiconductor back-end processes as part of the Hitachi group.
High density packages today can have 5 to 7 die in them, but these 20 die are ground down to 30µm thick, with 40 µm low loop wire bonding and technology for injecting resin into narrow gap. This all needs new specialist equipment for handling the ultra-thin die.
This is just for memory at the moment, but with 4Gbit memories you are now talking 10Gbytes in a single package, great for applications where weight and space are at a premium.
The real value is using this approach for other chips, which is where the connection with the Hitachi group (including chip supplier Renesas Technology) is important, putting processors and phone baseband and RF and memory in that package makes a compelling proposition.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

VIA launches pico-ITX

VIA Technologies has finally officially launched the pico-ITX format that has been floating around for the last few months. This is the world's smallest x86 mainboard format that measures 10cm x 7.2cm for a complete PC platform. Fitting into the palm of the hand is going a bit far, but it is a minor marvell of engineering.
This compares with mini-ITX at 17cm x 17cm, and Nano-ITX at 12cm x 12cm, half the size of the Mini-ITX.
The VIA VT6047 Pico-ITX mainboard was designed to be powered by one of VIA’s energy efficient processor platforms, such as the VIA C7 or fanless VIA Eden processor in the 21mm x 21mm nanoBGA2 package, combined with VIA's system media processors.
"The Pico-ITX represents VIA's commitment to spearhead x86 innovation through our proven technology leadership in driving down the platform size," said Richard Brown, Vice President of Corporate Marketing at VIA Technologies. "As with the Mini-ITX and Nano-ITX form factors before it, this new platform has raised the excitement level among enthusiasts and customers alike, firing the imagination an almost unlimited range of what were previously impossibly small systems."
The reference design has already been demonstrated at CES, CeBIT and the Embedded System Conference West, and the VIA Platform Solutions Division says it will announce the first commercial mainboard based on the Pico-ITX form factor 'shortly'.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Bluetooth market booming

I'm stunned that the Bluetooth market is still booming, as Bill McClean of market researcher IC Insights sees this as the 'Bright Spot' in the 2007 chip market with module unit shipments forecast to surge 47% this year.
According to IC Insights data, Bluetooth module unit shipments increased from virtually nothing in 2000 to 515 million last year and are forecast to grow to 1.63bn units in 2010. An interesting fact is that cumulative shipments of Bluetooth modules exceeded 1 billion in 2006. Over the 2006-2010 time period, unit shipments are forecast to grow at the strong rate of 33% per year.
The Bluetooth chipset market is forecast to expand from $1.47bn to more than $3.2bn over that 2006-2010 time period. Moreover, the ASP (average selling price) of a Bluetooth chipset in 2010 is forecast to be about one-fourth the price in 2002. Low cost is one of the main factors enabling more widespread deployment of Bluetooth technology but creates a problem for the chip makers.
There is no doubt that Bluetooth was over-hyped early on, says McClean, but as the price has dropped, the extra cost of adding Bluetooth has become easier to absorb. Bluetooth can now be found in a wide variety of products at all price levels and this is driving the growth.
Many of the leading automobile manufacturers have stated that Bluetooth will play a key role in establishing telematics applications. Given that approximately half of all cell phone calls originate from cars, and that countries increasingly are banning the use of cell phones while driving, hands-free calling in the automobile should become quite common. That application is a perfect fit for Bluetooth.
Another potentially very large market for Bluetooth devices is in stereo audio applications, especially stereo headphones for portable digital music players. It is rumored that Apple will soon launch a version of its iPod with built-in Bluetooth connectivity.
All very good news for Cambridge Silicon Radio, which dominates the market but is looking to expand out into WiFI and VOIP solutions.

VIA breaks into the Chinese market with HP

VIA Technologies appears to have broken into the desktop market with the world's largest PC maker in what could become the world's largest market - China.
HP is using VIA's 20W, 1.5GHz C7-D desktop processor for its HP Compaq dx2020 commercial desktop PC for the Chinese market.
VIA has been shipping low power embedded processors and motherboards with great success but has not really broken in to the commercial market.
“It is vital that companies across China, not just in the largest cities, gain access to the vast productivity, efficiency and online resource benefits of IT and the Internet,” said Wenchi Chen, President and CEO of VIA Technologies. “The HP Compaq dx2020 represents a great opportunity for many more Chinese businesses of all sizes to upgrade their operations while minimizing their power costs and environmental impact, and we are delighted that HP have selected the VIA C7-D desktop processor to create this excellent value proposition.”

HP Compaq dx2020 Key Specifications

Processor: 1.5GHz VIA C7-D Desktop Processor
Chipset: VIA CN700 Digital Media Chipset
Graphics: VIA UniChrome Pro II integrated graphics processor
Memory: Up to 1GB of DDR2 533 SDRAM
Hard Drive: 7200rpm Serial ATA up to 160GB, up to 3GB/s data transfer
USB2.0: 6 ports (2 at the front)
Networking: Fast Ethernet 10/100Mbps Broadband LAN
Dimensions: 36.7 x 17.5 x 42cm

However, the graphics only allows the dx2020 to support Windows XP, rather than Windows Vista.