GRENOBLE, France ( ChipWire) -- Riding what it calls a wave of "digital divergence," STMicroelectronics is rolling its digital audio/video decoder forward into digital appliances ranging from a low-cost digital-ready TV platform to a full-blown high-definition TV. It is also developing digital video disk players, satellite set-top/DVD combo boxes and home gateway units.
According to Philippe Geyres, corporate vice president and general manager of the Consumer and Microcontroller Groups at STMicroelectronics, the digital convergence of content is triggering the diversity of digital appliances. "We're well prepared to meet the demands of system vendors and service operators who want to configure features and functions of multimedia devices, integrating them in a number of diverging consumer appliances," Geyres said in a recent interview here.
"Set-tops and Internet appliances are no longer a niche solution. They have grown in significant volume, providing serious alternatives to PCs," he said.
Indeed, many in the industry believe that digital appliances for a diverging market -- particularly those using MPEG-2 encoding/decoding features -- will continue to proliferate.
Cahners In-Stat Group, for example, predicted in its latest report that the revenue for both MPEG-2 decoding and encoding circuits will double from $1 billion to $2 billion, with units surging from 77 million in 1999 to 200 million by 2004. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based market research firm noted that STMicroelectronics, among a number of key players in the market, again captured the top spot in MPEG video chip revenue. The company's top position was due to shipments of their integrated MPEG-2 decoder solutions for set-top boxes.
For the diverging TV market, STM is launching a new TV platform based on the company's ST20 32-bit CPU, according to Jean-Yves Gomez, digital TV director at STM. The platform is designed to cover everything from digital-TV-ready analog TVs to all-digital TVs that range from the low to the high end. It will allow system vendors to reuse software while giving them the option of adding or deleting features. "The goal is to develop a number of derivatives -- based on the platform -- very quickly," said Gomez.
Philips Semiconductors in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, has also adopted a "platform" approach like STM's for the digital TV market. More than a year ago, the Dutch company outlined a DTV platform with a MIPS-based architecture and offered the TriMedia multimedia processor as an option for adding flexibility to the overall system.
Gomez said, "The difference from Philips' approach is that our platform covers a much broader range of TV sets, including digital-TV-ready analog TVs."
Sitting at the core of STM's road map is the CTV100, a "digital-ready," low-cost solution based on the ST20 processor. The CTV100, slated for fabrication by the end of this year, offers improved processing for image and graphics quality. The solution runs at 100 Hz and features advanced teletext, on-screen display and bit mapping, and a digital chroma decoder.
The CTV100, meanwhile, can be quickly turned into a full digital TV solution, called DTV1, according to the company. The DTV1 consists of an Omega TV1 chip, also based on the ST20, and a digital chroma decoder used in the CTV100.
The Omega TV1 silicon combines all of the CTV100's features with MPEG-2 audio/video decoding blocks originally derived from STM's ST20-based set-top box chip. "The key here is that our customers can reuse all the software they have already developed on the ST20 platform. They don't have to change a single bit," said Gomez. The Omega TV1 will be sampled in mid-2001. Options for attaching a hard-disk drive and enabling interactivity will also be offered.
STM plans to leverage the CTV100 further with the launch of the CTV50 by the end of 2001. Designed for the worldwide market, the CTV50 will be a lower-cost version of a digital-ready analog TV solution. It will be designed for 50-Hz TVs, rather than 100 Hz, and will offer all of the features of the Omega TV1 chip except for MPEG decode and bit mapping.
Similarly, STM is laying out an aggressive and diversified road map for the set-top and DVD markets by leveraging its successful ST20-based MPEG-2 audio/video decoder silicon.
Responding to the emerging trend for time-shifting and recording capabilities for set-tops, STM is launching the single-chip STi5514. The device combines the company's currently available key MPEG-2 audio/video decoder, the STi5512, with its separate ASIC for handling multiple-stream transport. The STi5514 is also based on the ST20 processor and runs at 120 MHz.
For any set-top vendors planning to add 2-D and 3-D graphics acceleration and Web-browsingapplications, STM is offering the ST40-GFX1. And for service operators looking for high-end
graphics capabilities for playing PC graphics games, the company is providing the STG4003, a
3-D graphics chip.
After much talk, "combo products" such as digital satellite decoders capable of playing DVD discs are finally emerging on the market, said Philippe Lambinet, group vice president of STM's consumer and microcontroller groups. "It's already happening in Asia, and it will come to the U.S. market by Christmas this year," he said. It is unclear, however, how big such a combo box market will become, he cautioned. The good news is that a service operator can justify charging $200 for its set-top by making it do double duty as a DVD player. But the bad news is that such a DVD playback feature would compete against the very pay-per-view services the vendor hopes to push, said Lambinet.
STM is also eyeing the recordable DVD market. By mid-2001 it plans to launch a consumer-priced codec capable of both MPEG-2 encoding and decoding.
"A big challenge here is that consumers would automatically assume they're getting a high-level, DVD-quality video image off of any DVD," even though a recordable DVD system had to encode lousy NTSC signals, said Lambinet. "The codec needs to be able to do good noise reduction, imaging enhancements and filtering of NTSC signals."
Today STM has no in-house MPEG-2 audio/video encoding core. Asked if the company plans to license or purchase technologies from consumer codec companies such as iCompression (recently bought by Globespan) or Stream Machine, Lambinet declined to comment. He noted, however, that those early developers of consumer codecs have done a pretty good job, indicating that one shouldn't be surprised to see one of their technologies inside STM's upcoming solutions.