Munich, Germany - Semiconductor companies today face a subtle but significant shift in demand from system OEMs. Rather than just an integrated system-on-chip optimized for a single product, manufacturers expect a platform-based solution-with a tight coupling of software and hardware-that can be spun quickly and easily into several products.
Attendees at Europe's Electronica trade show here next week will find this trend most pronounced in the market for mobile-handset silicon.
"It's not just the Ericssons, Texas Instruments, Motorolas and Qualcomms of the world that are promoting a so-called mobile-phone platform," said Doug Grant, director of business development, RF and wireless systems at Analog Devices Inc. Just about everyone else who puts chips into a mobile handset is mindful of the change. "Offering just a baseband or just a radio chip is not enough. Our customers want a complete platform-level solution."
Mobile-handset vendors "have no time to handcraft an interface between radio and baseband ICs, add a power management chip, get them all to work together and try to write software on top of it," he said.
ADI (Norwood, Mass.) will be among the companies at the show pitching mobile-phone chips to system OEMs. ADI will be in Hall A4, Booth 358.
Further fueling the platform approach is a growing need among system OEMs to quickly push out products aimed at various markets. Most mobile-handset vendors are rolling out five or six models every six months. One of the biggest changes in the handset market is "segmentation," according to Loic Hamon, TI's wireless chip set marketing manager.
TI has become a dominant semiconductor company in the mobile-handset market thanks to its digital signal processor (DSP)-based application-specific IC development and tight collaboration with handset giants Ericsson and Nokia. But TI is not resting on its laurels.
The company offers three mobile-handset solutions addressing three segments: high-end multimedia/smart phones based on the company's Open Multimedia Applications Platform (Omap); midrange handsets based on a General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) modem integrated with an embedded application engine; and low-end volume Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) handsets using a single-chip cell phone solution that TI is promising to launch by the end of 2004. Many of TI's newest chips will be on display in Halls A5 (Booth 159) and A4 (Booth 225).
Meanwhile, as multimedia features proliferate in mobile handsets, many semiconductor companies, despite their radio and baseband chips, may also find themselves scrambling to add a separate application coprocessor. This opens the door for startups such as MediaQ Inc. to pitch "a companion chip that can offer better graphics, photo capture and nice, crisp acceleration of video playback capabilities," said Ven-kat Puntambekar, director of marketing at MediaQ (Santa Clara, Calif.).
Diverging geographical mar-kets have significantly different requirements for handsets, which means different radio chips for various operators, and baseband processors tailored to specific applications. Puntambekar said, for example, that J-Phone, one of the large Japanese wireless operators, no longer offers handsets without a camera.
"Latin America is dominated with entry-level handsets with SMS short messaging service and low-data-rate capabilities," said Brian Rodrigues, director of product management, cdma-2000, at Qualcomm CDMA Technologies, a division of Qualcomm Inc. (San Diego).
Elsewhere in the world, there is significant demand for midtier code-division multiple access (CDMA) phones with some data application features at an affordable price point. With the proliferation of cdma2000, high-level handsets featuring a camera, video interface and Bluetooth connectivity are also in demand in countries like Japan and South Korea, he said.
As for radio chips, Qualcomm CDMA Technologies offers several, including dual- and triple-mode radios. "The key is to design a common architecture for radio that requires only small tuning, while developing a methodology for baseband processors that would allow OEMs to bring their handsets to the market more quickly, as more and more segmentations are needed for handsets," said Rodrigues.
New market dynamics are emerging in the mobile-handset industry since companies such as Motorola Inc. and Ericsson started opening up to OEMs and original device manufacturers intellectual prop-erty "once jealously guarded and primarily designed for in-house use," said Alan Brown, principal communications analyst at Gartner Inc.'s Dataquest Europe unit.
Mobile platforms based on such intellectual property have begun to lower entry barriers for mobile manufacturers, triggering a proliferation of second- and third-tier mobile-phone vendors in the past 12 months.
Taking the platform approach, however, is easier said than done. Philips Semiconductors, for instance, has gone through three iterations of system solutions to get big handset vendors like Samsung to sign on to Philips' Nexperia platform. With the latest solution, internally called System Solution 3, Philips offers "a GPRS-enabled chip set including a new baseband device designed with all the right hooks for multimedia applications-such as cameras, location-based information and wireless connectivity," said Mario Rivas, executive vice president of communications businesses at Philips (Eindhoven, The Netherlands). The company will show its latest offerings in Hall A4, Booth 225.
The litmus test
But what separates one mobile platform from another today is how well it performs a fundamental communications function-as a mobile phone. Rivas put it simply: "Ours works."
Infineon Technologies AG (Munich) is also committed to a platform approach for mobile handsets. Stephan Mentz, senior product-marketing man-ager for customized wireless solutions, said Infineon is developing not only a hardware platform composed of such basic modules as RF, baseband and power management, but also a software platform based on a framework called Apoxi.
"To make a phone, you need a lot of software," said Mentz. Apoxi is an object-oriented framework originally designed as a rapid person-machine interface, but nowenhanced to an open application programming interface (API) for applications supported by a variety of third-party software. Infineon will be in Hall A5, Booth 506, at Electronica.
In contrast to high-end smart phones that already leverage an open platform based on such operating systems as Symbian or Windows CE, no standard software platform or open API exists for midtier or basic phones. Handset vendors develop their own user interface directly ported to protocol stacks. Because the protocol stacks are tightly integrated into hardware, if handset vendors decide to change underlying hardware, they have to change everything, including rewriting the interface and applications, said Mentz.
Infineon plans to first launch the Apoxi platform ported onto the company's E-Gold baseband IC designed for basic phones. The company will then port the Apoxi to the S-Gold, Infineon's new multimedia baseband chip for GPRS and enhanced data rates for global evolution (Edge) mobile phones.
Though Infineon unveiled the S-Gold earlier this year, the baseband processor's actual ramp-up won't happen until 2003, Mentz said.
While the E-Gold is based on the company's own 16-bit microcontroller unit, the S-Gold baseband family covering Edge and GPRS will use a 32-bit ARM9 core. Mentz said it assures the reusability of user interfaces, applications and any custom features developed by OEMs when they upgrade their basic phones.
Analog Devices, in addition to a company-developed direct-conversion radio called Othello, has pioneered a SoftFone platform for its baseband processors, on which "nothing is ROM-coded. Instead, software is stored on RAM on a chip," said Grant.
For ROM-coded baseband processing solutions, it's necessary to write different ROM code for every phone. In contrast, ADI's RAM-based approach lets a number of manufacturers quickly develop high-end, midrange and low-end handsets-all by using the same chip set, said Grant.
ADI is moving from the current-generation SoftFone platform based on its 16-bit 218X DSP to the next platform based on its Blackfin DSP core, a 16-bit core with 8-bit instructions to handle video. Using protocol stacks developed by TTPCom Ltd., ADI's Blackfin-based baseband processors will have enough power to handle new air interfaces such as GPRS and Edge, Grant said.
Trickle of coprocessors
While companies such as ADI and Infineon are in the midst of a shift to a new generation of baseband processors featuring more powerful DSP cores, they also recognize that a separate application coprocessor will be needed eventually, as multimedia capabilities-such as audio and video playback on a handset-are added to mobile phones.
Grant indicated that ADI might partner with third-party chip companies that have standalone coprocessors. Well- thought-out joint designs will be needed to achieve an optimized interface between a communication engine and an application coprocessor, he said.
Noting that smart phones are "driven by application processors," Mentz said Infineon has no plans to develop application coprocessors-at least not this year.
"A majority of handset vendors cannot afford a system software investment for an application processor," said MediaQ's Puntambekar.
MediaQ is rolling out new companion chips later this year, designed to seamlessly interface with most of the baseband processors. That's not such a tall order, considering most baseband CPUs today are based on ARM7, and they use a very similar interface, he said.