The increasing complexity and horsepower requirements of 3G wireless handsets has DSP vendors re-evaluating the role of accelerators and coprocessors. And one start-up, QuickSilver Technology Inc., is advancing an "adaptive computing" architecture it believes will render the prevailing class of DSPs and microprocessors moot.
The Communications Design Conference in San Jose this week will highlight the aggressive efforts of DSP and system-level silicon suppliers to prevail in the 3G market, even as its eventual parameters continue to be hotly debated.
"The real problem is we still don't know what 3G is supposed to be," said Will Strauss, an analyst at Forward Concepts Co., Tempe, Ariz. "There are going to be plenty of opportunities requiring significant power over and above what has been shipping to date. And unlike 2G, where Nokia has been able to provide handsets that go from the low to the high end based on a single chipset and minimal changes, 3G will require different chipsets. It's going to be much more difficult to play."
QuickSilver is developing Adaptive Computing Machine (ACM) technology, which it claims radically departs from the DSP and MPU hybrid solutions currently dominating the baseband chip market for wireless handsets. ACM will provide the horsepower needed for 3G applications without the need for coprocessors and accelerators, according to the company.
Other companies, such as PACT Corp., are looking to provide coprocessors that will improve the performance of standard DSP solutions. Other baseband chipset entrants, such as Adelante Technologies Inc., Improv Systems Inc., and 3DSP Corp., are providing details of alternative platforms to those currently dominating the market.
"Wireless 3G is the Holy Grail for everybody," said Leon Adams, manager of DSP strategic marketing at Texas Instruments Inc. in Houston. "There are people coming out with architectures du jour, but it really takes a lot more to support the market, including tools, software, and technical support. I think clearly the DSP is going to be in there, but we do see the possibility of coprocessors and accelerators when appropriate."
Better than DSPs?
QuickSilver, Campbell, Calif., is taking what some observers believe are the most ambitious steps. The company, which is financially backed by BellSouth Cellular Corp., says that with ACM, its chip can adapt dynamically to software algorithms embedded in hardware, enabling them to run at hardware speeds with greater performance than DSPs, and with longer battery life and simpler interfaces to RF front-end solutions.
"The microprocessors and DSPs currently going into mobile devices are really toy processors," said Paul Master, vice president of technology at QuickSilver. "We have a new category of device that effectively allows you to bring into existence at any point in time the exact hardware that your algorithm requires."
Master said QuickSilver plans to have its initial products ready for introduction by the middle of next year.
"If they can pull it off, it will be a breakthrough," Forward Concepts' Strauss said. "But a lot of people are concerned that ACM is too complex to ever really commercialize."
3G will require the use of coprocessors and accelerators, both on-chip and external, according to industry observers.
For DSP and MPU suppliers, PACT has introduced an "algorithmic coprocessor" it says will allow an algorithm to be mapped into individual arithmetic logic units arranged in an array inside the core. The coprocessor will enable reconfiguration of the algorithms to be performed in parallel, increasing performance by five to 10 times, said Martin Vorbach, chief technology officer at PACT, San Jose.
"It's not a question of technology, it's a question of knowledge, and I believe new companies like PACT have more knowledge of these concepts than the existing processor companies," Vorbach said.
Adelante Technologies was officially formed on Sept. 1, following the June merger of the former Philips Semiconductors DSP operations with Frontier Design. Adelante, Leuven, Belgium, in September introduced turbocoder IP cores for use in 3G handsets, as well as digital video broadcasting systems, DSL modems, and wireless LANs.
The company is supplying Philips with DSPs and plans to announce additional licensees before the end of the year, said chief operating officer Herman Beke.
"Just having a DSP core isn't good enough," Beke said. "We believe you will need highly optimized coprocessors like we just announced. Our objective is to become the ARM of the DSP world, and what ARM did for RISC in systems-on-a-chip, Adelante will do for DSPs."
Other companies hoping to become "the ARM of DSP" include Improv and 3DSP. Improv, Beverly, Mass., today will announce that Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute has licensed its Jazz DSP core technology. Improv and ITRI plan to co-develop voice-over-IP and MPEG-4 products to be manufactured by Taiwanese OEMs and ODMs.
"We're talking to about 30 companies [in Taiwan] right now," said Cary Ussery, president and chief executive of Improv.
Last week, 3DSP, Irvine, Calif., added a licensee, Agilent Technologies Inc. Agilent plans to use a combination of 3DSP and ARM cores to address 2.5G and 3G.
Agilent follows an earlier 3DSP licensee announcement with National Semiconductor Corp., and a funding agreement with Intel Corp., said Duane Smith, vice president of operations.
"[Agilent is] a real coup for 3DSP," Strauss said. "It's a big win for them, and 3DSP is now probably the number two company in terms of DSP licenses. They have about six to eight, compared with the 50 that DSP Group has, but only about a half-dozen of the DSP Group licenses are really bringing in royalties right now."
The real ARM of the DSP world, DSP Group Inc., Herzelia, Israel, plans several announcements at CDC this week, and Bat-Sheva Ovadia, vice president of marketing and business development, said the company believes it is ready to protect its leadership position.
"We have confidence," Ovadia said. "We have a large installed base of companies and we're leading the market with fully synthesizable solutions. We have a lot of knowledge in how to improve our offerings and give better support to our customers." OR