SANTA CLARA, Calif. ( ChipWire) -- National Semiconductor Corp. here disclosed plans to build a front-to-back chip set for cellular telephony. Based on a new architecture, the chip set would put National in competition with cell phone IC suppliers like Texas Instruments, Motorola and Lucent Technologies.
National made the disclosure during its technology demonstrations here, which emphasized its strength in market-focused processors and analog components. The company used the demos to take the lid off its wireless WebPAD devices, motor controllers, thin-client terminals, DVDs and audio players. The showings were also intended to show strength in mixed-signal communications and interface ICs, as well as National's own tweaks to the x86 processor architecture.
National's plans to build a complete chip solution for cellular phones, however, were among its most revealing plans. The company had already told financial analysts earlier this month that revenue for the previous quarter was considerably elevated by RF and wireless components.
At the demonstration, National's director for set-top box platforms, David Pederson, said the company was staking claims in Bluetooth -- while exploring HomeRF and IEEE 802.11 wireless LANs -- as well as building GSM and CDMA phones.
At the end of February, National revealed an integrated radio transceiver for GSM cellular phones the CeBit 2000 exhibition in Germany. At that time the company clearly indicated its interest in portable wireless applications.
Targeting cost and power consumption, National is perhaps 12 to 18 months away from rolling out a new DSP architecture that would be part of its offering for the booming cellular handset market. That offering will include a small DSP core that might be developed by National or sourced from outside, as well as a number of coprocessors and a "library of DSP building block functions," integrated on the same die, said William T. Stacy, vice president of wireless communications at National.
National would object to paying big royalties for the use of a less-than-optimal DSP core, though some intellectual-property providers will provide near-term support, Stacy said. National is currently a licensee of the TeakDSPCore from the DSP Group in Santa Clara, Calif., Stacy confirmed, but refused to comment on whether that architecture will be modified or displaced going forward. "The issue for us is getting out the lowest-cost, lowest-power solution," Stacy said.
National's DSP bid in cellular is fueled by algorithmic work at Algorex Inc. in San Francisco, a DSP and wireless design company National acquired last December for $21 million. The group's work in DSPs will be wrapped together with new and existing analog and RF parts into a multichip, system-level offering.
Power management -- a National strength -- will be a continuing concern with 3G phones, Stacy said. "A new solution is needed for low-power wireless handsets," he said. "It's clear as you get to third-generation cellular that power consumption is a real problem."
Dennis Monticelli, vice president of National's Power Management Division, said today's cell phones are typically built around four major parts: a digital baseband, an analog baseband, a power-management chip and RF. In the future that could be collapsed to a digital baseband running a software radio and a single analog chip.
Stacy said National intends to roll out a cell phone chip set supporting the GSM air interface and GPRS data overlay this year. A chip set for the CDMA air interface will follow early next year. A new architecture would help the company compete with other cell phone IC suppliers whose forte was DSP, he said.
The first-generation Bluetooth module demonstrated this week in Santa Clara (and with NEC at CeBit 2000) utilizes the National LMX3162 radio transceiver and LMX5001 link controller/DSP link manager. It also uses an Analog Devices ADSP218X as the host DSP. It currently fits on a 17 x 17-mm LTCC module, with firmware -- the Bluetooth protocol stack -- supplied by DigiOn.
The next-generation Bluetooth module will reduce the radio transceiver to one chip, and replace the DSP with a dedicated baseband engine, said James Benefer, product marketing manager in the company's Wireless Communications Division.
Meanwhile, National's Information Appliance Division demonstrated the Geode SP2GX00 in WebPADs and thin-client terminals. The company expects to roll out a family of Geode devices that targets specific markets starting this summer.
In the background, the company is also developing its next-generation X86 core. Code-named Red Cloud, the CPU will be a Pentium III-class device with completely redesigned floating-point and integer units, said Jean-Louis Bories, executive vice president and general manager of the Information Appliances Group. The part is expected to tape out in October and become a core in future commercially available Geode integrated parts early next year.