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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.