Friday, November 30, 2007

MOT’s Down, Ed’s Out

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the axe finally fell today on Motorola’s beleaguered CEO Ed Zander. Motorola surged to massive profitability based on the wildly successful Razr, becoming the #2 cell phone maker behind Nokia. Since then Motorola has steadily been losing both market share and money. Sales fell 36% in Q307, resulting in an operating loss of $138 million. That was actually an improvement over the previous quarter, but with Samsung—the new #2—now eating Motorola’s lunch and with Carl Icahn—this decade’s answer to Chainsaw Al Dunlap— gunning for Zander’s scalp, it was time for Ed to “spend more time with [his] family.”

The problem, as Paul Sagawa, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, points out, is that “the cavalry has been slow in coming in with new products.” Since the Razr all Motorola has been able to come up with is 26 different flavors of the same formula, which has gotten stale. When the Razr was introduced a couple of years ago, it was the epitome of cool; now it’s ‘so last week’. Meanwhile, Samsung has mastered the ‘art of cool’, which is mostly what matters among younger users, who buy most cell phones. The iPhone has removed any question that styling trumps technology any day, as long as you have cool features. The iPhone is hardly innovative, with the major exception of its physical design and user interface. Motorola has traditionally had great engineers but—except for what will hopefully not prove to be one brief moment in time—crappy designers.

I had a Motorola StarTAC over 10 years ago and marveled at its small size but dog ugly appearance. You needed either two hands or a long thumbnail to flip it open. It sold well until Nokia came out with an ultra-slim, chrome-cased beauty that caused a mad rush to the phone stores. Motorola just continued to ride that same pony into the ground.

In stepping down, Zander passed the baton to Greg Brown, Motorola’s COO, whom Zander has long groomed as a successor. That’s another classic Motorola problem, perpetuating a culture that clearly needs to change. Motorola has successfully reinvented itself several times in its history, almost always belatedly, and thus more painfully than needs be. Having jumped into a market that moves much faster than it does, Motorola needs to poach top leadership talent from Nokia, Samsung, Sony/Ericsson or Apple. Bring in fresh new ideas and shake things up. In Bob Dylan’s words, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Buy a smartphone or a computer? Hmm

In-Stat reports that sales of OS-based smartphones will grow at more than 30% CAGR for the next five years, taking increasing market share from their dumber counterparts. The unit volume for smartphones already exceeds unit sales for laptops. In-Stat predicts that smartphone use will grow mainly from their use as a laptop replacement. This is understandable, since they’re basically scaled-down, under-powered laptops with a phone attached.

U.S. carriers have long subsidized handset prices in order to lock you into two-year exclusive contracts with punitive bail-out pricing. Remove that subsidy and the price differential between a Blackberry and a cost-effective but capable laptop practically disappears. If you could just turn off the RF portion and flip out a usable keyboard, smartphones could completely replace laptops for road warriors on plane flights. Or am I the only one who manages to sit behind the guy who reclines his seat practically back into my lap?

Smaller laptops could fight back by adding cellular capabilities, maybe tossing in a Bluetooth headset to make calling easier. But that would give major heartburn to the carriers, whose business plans require you to buy a phone. Also, phone calls aside, while the fastest data network at the moment—Verizon’s EV-DO—can theoretically give you 2.4 Mbit/s downloads, in my experience that requires a hurricane-force tailwind. My laptop’s EV-DO data card is a nice backup when I’m out of range of a Wi-Fi connection, but the slowdown is still painful. My primary business phone is a laptop-based ‘softphone’ from Vonage that works over a Wi-Fi link, which over a cable modem at home delivers a reliable 5 Mbit/s. When I’m not in the office, incoming calls roll over to my smartphone.

So while the growth rate for smartphones is impressive, they leave a lot to be desired as laptop replacements. Still, if you feel you just have to respond right away to an email from your boss that arrived while you were out to dinner, your Crackberry addiction will continue to keep smartphone sales at an all-time high.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What can engineers do about global warming?

On Saturday the UN released the final report of its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the group that won a Nobel Peace prize last month for their work. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon—normally a practiced practitioner of polite prattle—described climate change as “the defining challenge of our age.” and warned that “In Bali”—where the world’s energy ministers meet later this month to begin talks on a post-Kyoto climate treaty—“I expect the world’s policymakers to do the same.” Yeah, right.

In a less-than-enthusiastic response, James L. Connaughton, the chairman of the president’s Council on Environmental Quality—a prodigious pusher of political piffle—responded with the damp squib that the administration agreed that “the issue warrants urgent action, and we need to bring forward in a more accelerated way the technologies that will make a lasting solution possible.” Regarding how bad things are or what to do about them right now, “We don’t have a view on that.”

The solution to global warming is both political and technical. Let’s leave the political swamp aside for the moment—there are plenty of blogs on that—and look at possible technical advances where EEs can contribute to the solution. I don’t mean obvious things like sell the Hummer and buy a Prius; switch from incandescent to mini-florescent light bulbs; and teach your kids to turn off the lights. I mean things you can incorporate into your next designs, or design areas you should consider embracing. Al Gore threw down the gauntlet at last April’s ESC, when he challenged embedded designers to come up with innovative solutions to conserve energy. There’s a helluva lot of room for improvement there, with large short-term payoffs.

As John East of Actel pointed out in the October cover story in Portable Design—“The Electronics Industry: The Power to Change”—more than 50% of the 4,055 billion kWh of electricity consumed in the United States each year is used to power electric motors. By simply adding intelligent load matching or variable speed control—and, in small appliances, simply switching from AC to brushless DC motors—efficiency can easily approach 95%. According to East, if implemented broadly these measures “could result in an annual reduction of U.S. energy consumption of as much as 300 billion kWh, saving billions of dollars and reducing greenhouse gases by more than 180 million metric tons.” Maybe then we could forgo a few dozen additional coal-burning power plants.

Then there is something as simple as the ‘wall warts’ that power portable electronics devices when they’re not on batteries. I’ve got 14 of these things in my house alone. They reportedly consume four percent of the electricity used by the average U.S. home, or over one percent of total U.S. power consumption. If the energy usage were extrapolated to a national scale, the total would be about 52 billion kilowatt hours, or the energy produced by 26 average-size (coal-fired) power plants.
They’re simple linear supplies with transformers that suck electricity 24/7 whether anything is connected to them or not. It would be dead-bang simple, and not expensive, to lose the transformers; go to a switching architecture; sense the presence of a load and decouple from the mains in the absence of one, using just enough energy to be able to power back up quickly on demand. Portable designers are experts in power management. Just move a little of it closer to the wall.

Next get on your company to look into alternative energy sources. Cypress and Google have led the charge in Silicon Valley to solar, getting them off the grid as far as possible. Austin has become a hotbed of wind power startups, since wind is one thing they have plenty in the Panhandle and along the Gulf Coast.

Speaking of wind power, if only we could harness all the hot air coming out of Washington on the subject of climate change, the politicians would finally be able to claim that they were contributing to the solution and not just the problem.

Friday, November 16, 2007

What’s Sheikin’ at AMD?

The big news today is that Abu Dhabi's Mubadala Development Corp. is buying an 8.1% stake in Advanced Micro Devices for around $700 million, according to the Financial Times. This is certainly welcome news for AMD, who have been cash strapped since buying ATI a year ago for $5.4 billion. If AMD is to have a prayer of avoiding Intel’s afterburners as the latter ramps its 45 nm chips, it will need an investor with deep pockets. And who has deeper pockets than an oil sheikdom?

But why would Abu Dhabi invest in a struggling chip company in a notoriously cyclical industry? Well, if oil is trading close to $100 a barrel, and if you're sitting atop depleting reserves, you need to invest that giant pile of cash somewhere. And in the long run, for all its ups and downs, technology is still a good play.

Also, the Emirates are trying to catch up with neighboring Qatar, who have spent their money creating an almost post-modern infrastructure built around international trade. The Emirates are starting to invest heavily overseas, with AMD—while big news in the tech community—being small potatoes to them. This is further good news for AMD, who will either have to rely more on foundries for the next generation of chips or bite a very large CAPEX bullet, which their new investors can certainly afford.

As TJ Rodgers has pointed out, silicon-based semiconductors are, pound for pound, the most expensive commodity on the planet. Isn’t there some poetic resonance in the idea of oil money from the sands of Arabia helping to power the silicon fabs in America? Sounds like a good idea to me.

Monday, November 12, 2007

System-Level Design Includes the PCB

Portable Design just received an overdue data dump from Mentor Graphics on PCB design. This a design area that we have largely overlooked in the magazine, which is particularly inexcusable since I used to be Asian editor for Printed Circuit Design Asia back when it was a Miller Freeman book. If you remember Miller Freeman, you probably also remember through-hole circuit boards. We’ve just established that you’ve been around for a while.

Anyway, John Isaac, director of systems market development in Mentor’s Systems Design Division—‘systems’ being something that they rightly define as extending to the edge of the PCB, not just the SoC—talked me through the complexity of placing and routing highly complex designs in FR4 instead of CMOS. Automated tools can do the job quickly but not very elegantly; hand-tooled approaches can save a lot of architecture, but at the expense of a lot of time. Mentor’s XtremePCB lets designers start with manual placement; do a quick auto-route; and then try to hand optimize the results.

The preferred alternative is to turn next to XtremeAR, which Isaac claims is “the first time that auto-routing has been applied to multiprocessing on a PCB.” In addition to doing auto-routing, you use Topology Planning to let the routing tool try to further optimize sections of a design—say the data and control paths between a CPU and a graphics controller. The results, in the demo, look far cleaner and more compact than the results from traditional auto-routing. I/O Designer allows parallel place and route of FPGA and PCB designs, enabling a much more compact PCB design, since you can lay out the components in the FPGA to maximize board efficiency.

Most interesting was taking a holistic approach to board design. XtremePCB manages a central database that enables globally-dispersed designers to work on the same board design in real time, working on a central database to which everyone has different access privileges, even component suppliers. Purchasing could reject a component as being too expensive—or the supplier could flag it as not being available in time or in sufficient quantities—and substitute another; this new part can then be evaluated and incorporated into the design before the board is even prototyped.

Suffice it to say that (1) PCB design has come a LONG way since I covered it closely ten years ago and (2) Portable Design will be covering it a lot more closely going forward.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

SDR Forum Announces Smart Radio Challenge Winners

The SDR Forum has announced the winners of its 2007 Smart Radio Challenge.

The Smart Radio Challenge challenged entrants to tackle some of the knottiest RF problems to which SDR offers potential solutions. These are all real-world problems whose importance has been underscored by recent events.

Problem 1: Spectrum Access for First Responders

The Scenario:
You are a first responder on the scene following a major earthquake. To effectively do your job, you need share significant amounts of data with other first responders including, for example, digital video, high-resolution pictures, high-resolution maps, and building floor plans. However, given the number of responders on the scene, the airwaves are clogged and you can’t send or receive the necessary data in a reliable manner using your conventional radio technology, and communications is compounded by urban propagation conditions. You are very concerned that your inability to communicate information quickly to the proper recipient is costing peoples lives.

The Challenge:
Develop a smart radio system that will automatically find available spectrum within a pre-defined band and transmit data over that band with a pre-defined QoS.

The Winners:
The Virginia Tech Team: VT-CWT – Mark Silvus, Terry Brisebois, Chen Chen, Quinquin Chen, Feng Ge, Gladstone Maraballie, Ying Wang, Alex Young and Charles Bostian.

Problem 2: Communications Interoperability

The Scenario:
A major forest fire has occurred in Southern California . This fire has spread out of control and has forced a number of local communities to evacuate as the fire approaches their homes and offices. Fire fighters and other emergency responders from organizations and jurisdictions nation wide have responded to this emergency, with each group bringing their own equipment. Unfortunately the radio equipments from the various jurisdictions are not interoperable with each other or with the civilian radio infrastructure, and this lack of interoperability is causing a huge problem in coordinating efforts. Without a way to allow these various radio equipments to interoperate, this lack of coordination has put the responders at risk, and has forced many front line responders to carry several radios to allow an appropriate level of inter-organizational communication.

The Challenge:
Develop a smart radio terminal that can automatically provide interoperability between radios with different modulations, voice, and network protocols, and which knows how to forward messages to the proper network – be it commercial or civil.

The Winners:
The Penn State team: Eric Menendez, Ohktay Azarmaresh, Mathew Sunderland, Sven Bilen and Julio Urbina.

Problem 3: Traffic Management

The Scenario:
You are driving into work, and the freeway is a parking lot. You listened to the traffic report on the radio, but given that the weather is poor, there are a lot of accidents, and as such there wasn’t really a lot you could go on to choose an alternate route. As you sit there with your engine running, watching your gas gauge move towards empty, you think to yourself that there must be a better way to manage these kinds of traffic problems.

The Challenge:
Develop a smart radio system that can, using available spectrum, accurately detect the location of many vehicles within the city and assess the velocity along common roadways. The system will then provide user specific route guidance from starting point to ending point which will minimize total fuel consumption.. The system must be future proof, to allow new features and capabilities to be added over an expected 10-year life span of the vehicle without requiring a visit to the dealer.

The Winners:
The KTH Team: Delia…Gonzales, Chithrupa Ramesh, Sandeep Srinivasan, Georgios Panagiotou, Liu Xin, Abdullah Mansoor, Ana … (sorry, details to follow)

The Grand Prize Winner (Photo) is Virgina Tech's CWT Team. In the photo Bruce Fette presents the award to members of the CWT Team. The full team includes Mark Silvus, Terry Brisebois, Chen Chen, Quinquin Chen, Feng Ge, Gladstone Maraballie, Ying Wang, Alex Young and Charles Bostian. (Just who is shown in this photo we'll clear up in a subsequent post; this IS a blog, folks!)

The Best Smart Radio Challenge Paper Award Went to the University of Utah team: Ehsan Azarnasab, Pieman Amini, Salam Akoum, Xuehong Mao, Harsha Rao, and Professor Behrouz Farhang Boroujeny.

The Best Design Award went to the Virginia Tech VT-MPRG Team: Phillip Ballister, Carlos Gonzales, Drew Cormier, Joseph Gaeddert, Shajedul Hasan, Kyehun Lee, Sheref Sayed, Haris Volos and Carl Dietrick.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Kato Keynote at SDR Forum 6 November 07

Dr. Shuzo Kato of Japan's NICT presented the Day Two keynote at the 2007 SDR Tech Forum, speaking on "Cognitive Radio for Best Spectrum Utilization through SDR- Various Definitions and Implications." This video, capturing all of his slides, is probably the most data-dense introduction to cognitive radio on record.

Dr. Kato received his Ph. D degree in electrical and communications engineering from Tohoku University, Sendai Japan in 1977. From 1977 to 1995, he worked at NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone) Research Laboratories in Japan, specializing personal and satellite communications systems R&D. These include core technology development for TDMA equipment, modems, and forward error correction schemes in addition to ASIC implementation of PHS (Personal Handy Phone) handsets and many satellite communication terminals. He has managed to develop 39 kinds of ASIC developments so far without re-spins including the world first TDMA chip set in 1986, the world fastest Viterbi decoder chip in 1987 and 1993, lowest power consumption ADPCM codec (500 m W) in 1994, best receiver sensitivity (6 dB improvement) and the world first 2 V operating CMOS SOC PHS baseband chip (deploying first coherent demodulator for 384 kb/s mobile terminals) and many others.

Dr. Kato has published over 190 technical papers, held over 75 patents (including a patent which became DOD (Department of Defense, USA) standard in 1998), co-founded International Symposium on Personal Indoor and Mobile Radio Communications (PIMRC). He is a Fellow of the IEEE and IEICE and served as an Editor of IEEE Transaction on Communications, Chairman of Satellite and Space Communications Committee, COMSOC IEEE, a Board Member of IEICE Japan.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Kielman Keynote at SDR Tech Forum 5 Nov 07

The annual 2007 Software Defined Radio Technical Conference and Product Exposition (aka Tech Forum) opened today with a speech by Dr. Joseph Kielman, head of the Office of Interoperability and Compatibility at the Department of Homeland Security.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Podcast of SDR Tech Forum Kielman Keynote 5 Nov 07

Download at Also available on iTunes (search term: Kielman).