SAN JOSE -- With the disclosure last week of key components for its next-generation StrongARM microprocessor platform, Intel Corp. made clear that its plans to attack the communications sector will run the gamut from infrastructure equipment to cellular handsets.
The company's upcoming XScale processor architecture, part of a high-performance extension of StrongARM, will be incorporated into Intel's next-generation RISC-based IXP1200 network processors.
The XScale will feature a range of scalable perform-ance metrics and on-chip, DSP-like multimedia extensions similar to those already designed into Intel's X86 processor line.
The limited DSP functionality will boost the Strong-ARM's native performance in a variety of portable consumer electronics applications, according to Intel, while the ability to combine XScale with a discrete DSP will help the company drive deeper into the cell-phone market.
Discussed here at last week's Intel Developer Forum, XScale is scalable to 1 GHz at 1.5 W of power consumption, and features dynamic voltage management, or what Intel describes as a unique feature that allows the processor to shift clock rate, voltage, and power dissipation on the fly.
In a typical handheld application, for example, XScale could operate at 50 MHz and 0.5-V operation with only 10-mW power dissipation in sleep mode, and then ramp to higher performance when computationally intensive functions must be performed. The power saving is expected to enable handheld devices to be powered by one or two AA batteries, according to the company.
"XScale will rise to the occasion, providing on-demand mips," said Mark Christensen, vice president and general manager of Intel's Network Communications Group (NCG).
The company currently has five development efforts mapped out for the XScale. NCG programs in progress include I/O processors for storage; integrated access devices for customer-premise equipment and Internet gateways; and high-end to midrange network processors. Intel's Wireless Communications & Computing Group is developing PDAs and cellular handsets using the XScale technology.
As Intel's wireless-communications strategy takes shape, the emerging client-side platform is bearing a resemblance to the Open Multimedia Applications Platform (OMAP) developed by rival Texas Instruments Inc. XScale is expected to be combined with a DSP, code-named Frio, that Intel is developing with Analog Devices Inc., Norwood, Mass., which would provide a hybrid RISC/DSP architecture for handheld appliances.
With its new platform, Intel is trying to chip away at TI's dominance in the cell-phone market, where it owns about a 60% market share. TI's OMAP solution, built around its TMS320C54x DSP and an ARM7 RISC processor, is slated to evolve to a combi-nation of a higher-performance TMS320C55x DSP and an ARM9 processor-a tandem that already has gained support from cellular leaders Nokia and LM Ericsson and consumer electronics giant Sony. TI is also working on the development of an ARM10 RISC core.
Nevertheless, Intel said that, paired with its other device lines, the XScale brings together the most complete array of products for the wireless sector.
"We're already the major supplier of flash memory to the cellular-phone market," said Ronald Smith, vice president and general manager of Intel's Wireless Communications & Computing Group.
Specifically, Intel said the combination of the XScale and Frio will be the best architecture available as the cell-phone market moves to data-intensive services designed for the 2.5G and 3G wireless standards.
However, Tom Starnes, an analyst at Dataquest Inc., San Jose, questioned how well Intel will do in penetrating the mature wireless-client and rapidly evolving consumer markets.
"Those markets have been there a long time, and Intel has not been in there," Starnes said. "It's really something outside their background, and they have some ground to make up to be successful."
Will Strauss, an analyst at Forward Concepts Co., Tempe, Ariz., called Intel "a formidable company," but asked whether it will be able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
"They're making a strong push, and are putting a lot of resources into it," Strauss said. "It will take more than silicon, however. "There's also a need for software and key alliances."
As the handset market grows to annual shipments of as many as a billion in the next two to three years, "there will be only a few silicon houses that will be able to ship in those kinds of volumes," Strauss added. "Intel plans to be one of the survivors, and even if they could capture 20%, that's 200 million handsets."
Tony Massimini, an analyst at Semico Research Corp., Phoenix, said Intel has already countered naysayers who believed the company would be unable to use the StrongARM architecture it captured in acquiring the semiconductor operations of Digital Equipment Corp. in 1998.
"XScale has great potential in the handheld market," Massimini said. "ARM and StrongARM are already firmly established in the market. XScale should provide Intel with opportunities in a lot of areas in addition to the smart phone."
Predictably, Texas Instruments and Intel each pointed to their respective strengths as leading the next wave of cell phones, with Intel touting its RISC expertise and TI calling out its background in DSP design.
Mark Mattson, TI's 'C5x marketing manager, said the company "generally sees RISC as a complement to DSP. At the heart of all the 2.5G and 3G technologies, we see heavy increases in processes requiring high-performance DSP."
Intel's Smith, on the other hand, said there will be a growing need for DSPs in cellular handsets, but increasingly the most demanding applications will require better RISC processing.
Dataquest's Starnes said he finds the X-Scale game plan closer to the StarCore DSP jointly developed by Lucent Technologies Inc. and Motorola Inc., because both architectures are scalable and aimed at markets ranging from handsets to infrastructure equipment. TI, by comparison, offers two different DSP architectures depending on whether the end application addresses the client or infrastructure market.
Intel builds wireless-communications portfolio
FlashFlash data integrator
Baseband chipsets--DSP Communications
DSP--Frio (co-developed with Analog Devices Inc.)
Pentium III and Xeon processors
Internet Exchange Architecture--standards and third-party support