Having hitched their wagons to WLAN-a bright spot on an otherwise bleak communications landscape-silicon suppliers are beginning to steer the wireless networking technology toward handheld devices, a frontier once thought to be out of range.
The robust growth of 802.11-compliant WLAN equipment for laptop PCs has attracted more than a dozen silicon suppliers that are helping drive down the technology's cost and providing more integrated solutions.
Subsequently, these products have begun to attract the attention of PDA makers, several of which are now offering WLAN add-in cards. Toshiba Corp. recently became the first to offer embedded WLAN in a PDA.
"About nine months ago we realized we were starting to see a need for devices other than just PC cards, and the ability to take wireless LAN past its original charter," said Matt Kurtz, marketing manager at Texas Instruments Inc.'s WLAN business unit in Dallas.
TI, which entered the 802.11b market early this year, today will unveil its second-generation baseband/MAC processor, a device the company said reduces cost, power, and size barriers to full-scale WLAN deployment in handheld communication devices.
Last month, Marvell Technology Group Ltd. joined the WLAN silicon fray with chipsets targeted at client and access points that provide both the baseband/MAC processor and RF transceiver.
TI and Marvell are battling established companies such as Intersil Corp.-which in 2001 controlled more than half of the WLAN IC market-Agere Systems Inc., and Atheros Communications Inc.
"Everything else is in the doldrums, and wireless LAN is actually doing better than forecast," said Allen Nogee, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR, Scottsdale, Ariz. "There are a lot of companies out there looking at the market. There will be a big fight as a few succeed and many don't."
Branching out from notebooks
WLAN has begun to establish a beachhead in the notebook computer market, which helped drive chipset revenue to around $325 million this year, according to Nogee. The chipset market is expected to grow to more than $700 million within four years.
Earlier concerns about the technology's fitness for use in handhelds appear to have dissolved as well.
"Everyone has bashed wireless LAN and said it doesn't fit into PDAs from a power consumption and cost model," TI's Kurtz said. "The prohibitive factors are power consumption, cost, and size, but we don't think there's anything inherent that keeps it that way."
Kurtz said the company has shipped about 1 million WLAN chips this year and believes the market can expand even quicker next year with the use of its TNETW1100B, an 802.11b media-access controller (MAC) and baseband processor. The new device shrinks the form factor from its original size of 16 ?? 16mm square to 12 ?? 12mm2, reduces standby power consumption to 2 mW, and cuts components bill of materials to around $20, he said.
TI is uniquely situated to succeed in handheld WLANs, according to Kurtz, because of its leading position as a supplier of baseband processors to the cellular handset market. He added, however, that widespread implementation of WLAN in handsets remains some years off.
"The impact [of WLAN] will be even greater in the cell phone, but it's still up in the air when that's going to happen," he said.
Chris Henningsen, vice president of marketing at Intersil in Palm Bay, Fla., said cell phone manufacturers are already gearing up for WLAN, particularly in higher-end "smart phones" with large displays.
"There's a lot of action going on with the cell phone people," Henningsen said. "Prices in the WLAN space will probably drop 40% to 50% [from] January to December, and part of that is being accelerated by more competition."
Cost still prohibitive
Joe Byrne, an analyst at Gartner Dataquest, San Jose, said he does not expect significant cell phone penetration for a few years.
"It's a question of cost as much as anything, but the chip suppliers understand this and are anxiously pursuing the opportunity to bring cost to a lower threshold," Byrne said. "There's plenty of time for cost to come down."
In-Stat/MDR's Nogee said cellular providers will begin to embrace WLAN as prices fall and billing arrangements are worked out to bring about such features as voice-over-Internet Protocol.
Wireless LAN is expected to find its way into PDAs as "hot spots" with WLAN access points proliferate beyond airports and coffee shops to places such as convention centers, hotels, and restaurants.
"The PDA could be quite handy to check e-mail, and could even wind up being direct competition for 2.5G and 3G cell phones," Nogee said.
James Chen, product marketing manager at Marvell in Sunnyvale, Calif., said the company intends to introduce a chipset specifically for the handheld market, but for now Marvell is concentrating on further penetrating the laptop PC market.
"The wireless LAN market has been taking off nicely, but it hasn't by any means reached its limit," Chen said. "Our goal is to make wireless LAN a standard feature in laptops, like Ethernet or modems, as well as move into home gateways for the consumer and business enterprise markets."
Marvell is seeking to overcome barriers to mass deployment, including extending range and battery life, reducing signal interference, and improving security. The company's Libertas chipsets are 802.11b-compliant, but also include 802.11i, a pending security protocol.
"I do believe the PDA space is ready [for WLAN]," Chen said. "And the cell phone equipment makers are very interested because 3G is really not happening and they're looking for new avenues to revenue."