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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.