The mobile device market places many demands on development teams, including increasing complexity, shrinking market windows, and the need to quickly create many product variations having ever-changing feature sets. To meet these demands, developers are turning to a new design approach and creating platforms upon which to base multiple product variations.
The platform design approach has become popular in response to an increasingly complex and uncertain consumer electronics market, especially in the realms of handheld and mobile devices. Consumers demand new features and better performance while expecting unaffected battery lives and stable or lower prices. However, the fates of new features can be hard to predict. Some are popularized and widely adopted by the market, but others fail to capture market interest and fade away. Furthermore, different geographic and demographic groups have their own unique expectations, requiring vendors to offer a wide range of product variations.
All of these consumer expectations create a challenging design environment in which vendors must produce a wide array of increasingly sophisticated products endowed with an uncertain mix of new features. What's more, vendors must do so quickly and inexpensively so they can offer competitive products and pricing. Their design approach must be flexible, innovative and speedy, and it must also facilitate the inexpensive creation of derivative designs.
Traditional development methods are proving inadequate to this task. Microprocessors, the keystone of flexible design because of their programmability, are running out of steam. Required feature sets are now so complex and rapidly changing that current processors cannot implement them within cost, power and time-to-market constraints. Standard IC products, or ASSPs (application specific standard products), do not support feature innovation and fail to provide the feature flexibility required by ever-changing market demands. Custom logic (ASICs) is too costly and time-consuming to develop.
These shortcomings in standard design approaches have given rise to a new design approach: the platform. The platform approach calls for the creation of a base design that contains hard and soft logic, both of which can provide high performance and design flexibility. The platform approach supports the rapid creation of product variations through changes to the soft logic while allowing performance and cost optimization in the standard features common to all variations. This method provides flexibility that reduces the risk of fixing unwanted features and allows customization to introduce newly popular features.
Because the platform serves as the basis of many product designs, products share the platform's development cost, keeping average product development costs low. The platform leverages software development costs in the same way. The drivers and other support software needed for peripheral functions in the platform can be reused in each product variation. Device fabrication costs are similarly shared, allowing for the creation of products for low-end markets from a high-end platform simply by selecting a subset of features to be enabled. Platform-based design thus provides better market coverage than do traditional methods.
The key to creating a platform that has the right mix of standard functions in hard logic and flexible functions in soft logic is careful design up front. First, the customer requirements must be surveyed. Categorizing these needs into segments (such as interface, display, storage and processing) helps streamline later design decisions, but this calls for development teams to identify for a given application space any existing needs or feature sets while also anticipating future needs. By anticipating increasing demand for storage capacity and display resolution, for example, development teams can make provision in the platform design for such changes. Similarly, teams must keep in mind needs beyond those of the product designs that will initially use the platform.
Development teams must also keep in mind their design budgets when choosing features for platform implementation. Silicon area, board area, power demands, BOM costs and the like all impose constraints affecting platform design choices. Similarly, risks, costs and design time associated with particular features need to be evaluated. The flexibility of the soft logic in the platform allows for easy trade-offs between various design parameters.
The creation of a platform is not only an exercise in hardware design. To be successful in promoting speedy and effective product design, considerations such as software availability, system performance and power management should be factored in to the design process. Failure in any of these areas could turn the platform into a liability instead of an asset.
Development teams also need to understand that silicon is simply one part of a design solution. There may be system elements that will affect the validity of silicon design decisions. Software, for example, can sometimes limit the performance of peripheral functions because of high operating system overhead. A comprehensive system performance evaluation, however, can help to identify and eliminate true bottlenecks in the platform. Recognizing any such system restrictions well ahead of time will make platform design decisions more productive.
When designing a platform, power management must be taken into account. Many different options are available both in software and hardware, such as the ability to localize clocking within the platform or to shut down power to logic blocks, all of which can help product developers manage power more effectively. Platform designs should also take advantage of low-power logic technologies where appropriate.
If commercial platforms are to be viable in an application space, they must possess several key characteristics. They must (a) include strategic application components and not simply serve as forms of glue logic; (b) lower system BOM costs by integrating many discrete components on the board; (c) provide easy bases for design and offer enough feature options to significantly speed up development for entire families of products; and (d) be highly flexible, providing their derivative product families with long market lives and the ability to keep pace with the market's evolution. As relates to the latter characteristic, QuickLogic's ArcticLink CSSP offers Hi-Speed USB 2.0 On-the-Go with built-in PHY, high-speed SD/SDIO/MMC/CE-ATA host controller and embedded ultra-low-power programmable fabric, all on one chip. A highly integrated and flexible companion device, it meets the requirements of a platform, including all four characteristics described here: (a) through (d).
Howard Li (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior marketing manager for QuickLogic, which is responsible for ultra-low-power platforms and solutions.
QuickLogic's ArcticLink CSSP provides platforms with state-of-art connectivity standards and the flexibility for product variations