PARIS PortalPlayer Inc. is about to launch a personal media player platform, composed of a new chip and firmware, designed to help system companies develop portable entertainment devices for consumers who feel naked leaving the house without several thousand digital songs and snapshots tucked into their jeans.
Personal mobile entertainment devices based on a low-cost micro hard drive are a top priority for virtually every consumer and computer company, analysts said, even though the category is still largely undefined. "Every major PC and CE vendor I deal with views this type of device as in essence becoming the 'Video Walkman' of the future," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies (Campbell, Calif.).
PortalPlayer (Santa Clara, Calif.) will unveil its Photo Edition platform at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month. Comprising a system-on-chip (SoC) that integrates two ARM cores and a firmware stack that includes a real-time operating system, the platform is designed to add digital photo archiving and synchronizing capabilities to MP3 players.
PortalPlayer says it has already lined up three Taiwanese manufacturers LiteOn, Tatung and Wistron as customers, and Aeronix (Melbourne, Fla.) as an authorized design partner.
The platform makes it possible to build "an entertainment device enabling you to carry with you all of your personal content," said Gary Johnson, PortalPlayer's president and chief executive officer. As shown by the popularity of devices such as Apple's iPOD, Johnson said, "consumers aren't leaving media behind."
Thanks to its early lead in the hard-drive-based MP3 player market, PortalPlayer dominates the music jukebox market and claims that its chips and firmware drive 80 percent of the systems on the market. Its solution is used in models built by Alpine, Apple, Bang & Olufsen, Philips, RCA, Rio, Samsung and Yamaha. PortalPlayer now hopes to expand its base by marrying an MP3 player with a screen and adding the imaging component.
In CEO Johnson's view, portable media players could represent the most practical way to make the so-called connected digital home a reality. Microsoft Corp. has been promoting MediaCenter PCs in the living room to "capture" audio and video to store and play back later. Others including Intel Corp. see digital media adapters personal video recorders, DVD recorders or other digital systems sitting next to a TV and wirelessly connected to a PC elsewhere in the house, to download media for playback in the living room.
Personal media players, in contrast, save entertainment content in a device so portable that it can be accessed in the home, in a car or on the go. PortalPlayer claims that such a system will connect to PCs and home and car receivers today without interoperability complications.
It is still not clear whether such a system will be a runaway success on the mass market or just another peripheral gizmo for photo enthusiasts. "As a standalone device, a personal digital photo album would appeal to only a limited audience," said Avi Greengart, senior analyst, personal and wireless technology, at Jupiter Research (New York). "But personal music players are already a huge industry that's rapidly becoming digital with higher and higher storage densities, so adding photo functionality builds on that."
While some might argue that such a product represents overkill for consumers already toting phones, cameras and PDAs, Greengart disagreed. The assumption that people want to carry only one device "simply isn't true, according to our research," he said. "People are willing to carry multiple devices, and in many cases prefer the flexibility. Battery life and form factor are optimized, and you can choose to [carry] what you need that day."
Jupiter Research forecasts that U.S. shipments of MP3 players will almost double this year to more than 3.5 million units and will continue to grow almost 50 percent per year. Further, the research firm believes that, starting in 2004, demand for MP3 players with hard drives will outstrip demand for those with flash memory.
PortalPlayer has bet the farm on hard drives, convinced that the gap between flash-based portable media players and those built around hard drives will only widen as higher-resolution pictures become more prevalent. "Consumers find the utility value in hard drives because of their storage space," said Johnson.
Jupiter Research's Greengart noted that sales of high-end hard-disk-based devices are much better than many predicted. "People are clearly willing to spend a significant premium to take a lot of content with them rather than picking and choosing content, loading and unloading the player," he said.
As a host of new players, including some formidable silicon competitors such as Texas Instruments Inc., prepare for entry in 2004, the personal media market is expected to heat up. However, said Greengart, "Where PortalPlayer has really excelled is with firmware, software and DRM [digital rights management] enablement, which lets their customers choose exactly what level of differentiation they want to invest in, and still get to market quickly."
PortalPlayer's Personal Media Platform, Photo Edition, includes JPEG and motion JPEG playback capabilities with music soundtrack. The SoC integrated with dual ARM cores offers a total of 160 MHz in processing power, and supports TV out and color display. The SoC comes with various interfaces, including a USB 2.0 high-speed host and a device port with a USB On-the-Go supplement; a Firewire link layer and Ethernet support. It allows direct camera connectivity while automatically switching to support high-speed PC uploads and downloads. PortalPlayer claims fast data transfer rates, with ATA66 and dedicated DMA controllers allowing efficient data movement of 5-Mpixel images with MP3 and lossless audio files.
Perhaps most important, PortalPlayer will support next-generation DRM, required for music downloads. Thus far, "one device dedicated for one music service" was a standard model for most portable music players, said Michael Maia, vice president of sales and marketing at PortalPlayer. "But the new world order in 2004 is the emergence of products that can work with a multitude of music services, by supporting many DRM rules."
The extra Mips available on the dual ARM cores, with a road map to push processing power to 200 MHz later next year, will enable the PortalPlayer platform to adapt to the new model, he said.
Potential customers can "go soup-to-nuts with us," Maia said. Customers can buy just the SoC and design the rest of the system on their own, or use the platform's software development kit, which is licensed separately, for that purpose. The chip, being fabricated by LSI Logic Corp. using an 0.18-micron process, is priced at $19.50 in 10,000-piece quantities. The software development kit lets a portable device launch an application when connected, while it does tricks like adding music to slide shows or managing photos by editing, rotating and cropping, and red-eye correction. It also makes it possible to synch slide shows, photos and music.
Component suppliers include Toshiba, with an 1.8-inch drive, and Cornice, with a new 1-inch micro drive; Synaptics, a touchpad company, and Gracenote, a music ID service company. PortalPlayer has also partnered with an unnamed CMOS sensor company on a reference design for a Photo Edition platform-based CMOS camera capable of 2- to 3-Mpixel photos, with an additional capability to function as an audio player, Johnson said.