SAN FRANCISCO The huge cellular handset market has long been viewed as a lucrative opportunity for microelectromechanical system (MEMS) devices. But while MEMS-based silicon microphones and RF switches have rapidly penetrated handsets, industry analysts are divided over how quickly more expensive, motion-sensing MEMS devices, such as accelerometers, will see volume uptake.
Accelerometers are being integrated into some mobile handsets to enable such applications as intelligent user interfaces that that let users input commands through gestures; indoor GPS functionality, which calculates the movement and direction of the device after contact is broken with a GPS satellite; and intelligent power consumption, which automatically shuts off circuitry when it is not needed. The high-profile Apple iPhone uses an accelerometer to detect the orientation of the device and automatically change the display from portrait to landscape when the phone is rotated.
Though accelerometers have declined rapidly in price over the past few years, making them more attractive options for handset manufacturers, the common wisdom is that they must dip below the $1 threshold to achieve widespread uptake in cell phones. That will occur in 2010, according to a report by ABI Research. Some have speculated that by 2012, half of all handsets will include accelerometers.
But not all market watchers are sold.
"When I see forecasts that say in five years every cell phone will have an accelerometerwhile personally I'd love to see itthe numbers just don't add up," said Marlene Bourne, president and principal analyst at Bourne Research LLC (Scottsdale, Ariz.). According to Bourne, the average selling price (ASP) for tri-axis accelerometers is now roughly $1.50. Even at $1, Bourne said, incorporation of accelerometers will remain a pricey gamble for handset manufacturers.
Incorporating the devices for functionality in high-end phones like the iPhone makes sense, she said, but it's a different proposition for even midrange handsets. "It's hard to believe that you are going to put a sensor that is $1.50 or even $1 into a mass-market cell phone, where the bill of materials [BOM] is as low as it is," Bourne said.
Douglas McEuen, a senior analyst at ABI Research, countered that the success of the iPhone and Nintendo's Wii gaming system (which also uses accelerometers) has prompted some to make the leap to motion-sensing MEMS. "I would argue that you almost have to [add motion-sensing capability], just because these products [iPhone and Wii] have been so successful," McEuen said.