A few years ago, when I was searching for a new phone, I dearly wanted a Wi-Fi-enabled model. But none of the cell-phone vendors in my vicinity carried one in stock. In fact, a number of them responded to my inquiries with blank looks, as if I’d been speaking a foreign language.
Fast forward to today’s wireless climate, where the passage of a few years has yielded some serious technical innovation.
In light of Qualcomm’s recent purchase of Atheros Communications, UBM TechInsights decided to review the product offerings of both Atheros and Qualcomm to assess the impact on the handset market, including silicon vendors, in our research for our study on the WPAN market landscape.
Atheros is known for its wireless LAN (Wi-Fi) products, from which it derives close to 80 percent of its revenue. Over the past six years, however, the company has been steadily trying to diversify its offerings with five acquisitions. It now offers Bluetooth, GPS, Ethernet, powerline networking and passive optical network solutions.
The study undertaken by UBM TechInsights looked at 220 handsets with integrated Qualcomm basebands over a 10-year period. The study also gauged the technology’s adoption rate as a measure of total systems vs. systems with Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi.
Bluetooth, which began to be deployed starting in 2003, had achieved a 100 percent adoption rate in handsets by 2010.
During this same period, Wi-Fi deployment significantly lagged that for Bluetooth, as it had to wait for the market, as well as the technology, to converge. From 2008, however, Wi-Fi deployment began to experience explosive growth, and by 2010 the technology had a 92 percent adoption rate. That conclusion came from a sample set for 2010 that consisted of 26 phones.
Also interesting in terms of the study was the adoption rate for combination chips. (A combo chip is a multifunction chip or integrated package [multichip module, or MCM] with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi; in many cases, combo chips include FM support as well.) Some companies, such as Murata, are now creating combo MCMs that have a very small footprints. A select number of silicon providers, such as Broadcom and Texas Instruments, have created single-chip Bluetooth/Wi-Fi/FM solutions, and the module manufacturers are taking advantage of that availability.
The trend toward adoption of the single-chip silicon solution was at 62 percent in 2010, compared with 69 percent for the combo module (MCM). There is an upward trend toward integration of connectivity functionality such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and FM; today most combination products are single-chip silicon solutions.
An example of a popular and simplified solution from a module manufacturer, such as Murata or Samsung, contains a single die with an additional set of discrete components, such as the Samsung module found in the Samsung Galaxy Spica. This handset uses the Broadcom BCM4325, a single-pole/double-throw (SPDT) switch and various discretes. The module measures 8.25 x 7.75 mm.
Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/FM module found in the Samsung Galaxy Spica phone.
Click on image to enlarge.
Less common in modules are multidie, multifunction solutions, like the one found in the Sony Ericsson X2. In this case, the module maker, Murata, has integrated an an Atheros AR6002 (Wi-Fi) chip and a single-die Qualcomm Bluetooth with two switches and other components. The package size is 9.70 x 9.17 mm.
Some companies are still choosing to populate the main circuit board with multidie and discrete components, as can be seen in the Samsung GT-I5503 Galaxy 5, which uses the Atheros AR6003 (for Wi-Fi) together with a Broadcom BCM2078 (Bluetooth/FM) chip.
Click on image to enlarge.
With adoption rates of more than 60 percent for single-die multifunction (Bluetooth/Wi-Fi) solutions—many of which are offered by companies like Atheros, Broadcom and Marvell—it seems Qualcomm had better move fast to expand its product family to include single-package (that is, MCM) wireless connectivity solutions. It could be a few years however, before we see a single-package solution from Qualcomm, even with its acquisition of Atheros.
Broadcom and Texas Instruments currently command the bulk of design wins in the combo Bluetooth/Wi-Fi/FM market, as we’ve seen in numerous teardowns conducted over the past year on numerous handsets and tablets. On the integration front, Texas Instruments released a quad-radio (Bluetooth/Wi-Fi/FM/GPS) single-die solution, the WL1283, which was the combo chip of choice for the the RIM Blackberry Playbook.. A product announcement from Broadcom on a quad-radio single-die solution is still forthcoming; but with Texas Instruments having successfully designed a solution, the opportunity for significant market share and a chance to displace Broadcom as the leader in the connectivity market are now in that company’s control.
Even so, Qualcomm remains well positioned to capture a portion of the connectivity market, if it can provide a cost-effective integrated solution that leverages its new partnership with Atheros.
Gordon Holstead is senior analyst at UBM TechInsights.