Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blackberry’s Got Seoul

The Wall Street Journal announced today that Canada’s Reasearch in Motion (RIM) has finally cracked the Korean market. One more domino falls before the inexorable march of the Blackberry.

The South Korean South Korean government said it will remove a regulatory hurdle to the sale of advanced cell phones by outside manufacturers. In 2005 the Korea Communications Commission ruled that cell phones connecting to the Internet in Korea must use domestic software, called Wireless Internet Platform for Interoperability (MIPI), that was supposed to make it easier for local programmers and cellular service companies to offer Web-based services. Since foreign cell phone makers didn’t find it worth their while to modify their phones just for Korea, the ruling helped Samsung and LG account for 80% of handset sales in the country. Korea has about 35 million cell cell phone users and sales of 5.1 million phones in Q308.

The WIPI rule will be rescinded as of April, opening up the previously protected Korean to foreign competition. The ruling is the result of a more open regulatory environment following presidential elections earlier this year. But it is also a reward for RIM’s persistence in applying four times since 2006 to gain entrance to the Korean market without using WIPI software; complaint from legions of Road Warriors stepping off planes at the Seoul airport probably didn’t hurt, either.

It may also be karmic justice now that Samsung has passed Motorola to be the second largest cell phone seller in the U.S., Mot now has a chance in Samsung’s own backyard. And Nokia—number one in handset sales internationally, with Samsung being number two—can suddenly compete in Korea, where it has a huge factory but no sales.

Expect the famously hip Korean teenagers to snap up Apple iPhones as quickly as they hit the stores. And expect their workaholic parents to be sneaking peaks at their shiny new Blackberries while the rest of the family watches TV.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Don't Shoot the Messenger

David Carr has a column in the Media & Advertising section of today's New York Times that's worth reading, whether you're a provider or consumer of news: Newspapers Jettisoning Top Talent to Cut Costs:

"Right now, the consumer has all manner of text to choose from on platforms that range from a cellphone to broadsheet. The critical point of difference journalism offers is that it can reduce the signal-to-noise ratio and provide trusted, branded information. That will be a business into the future, perhaps less paper-bound and smaller, but a very real business."
Carr takes the example of Circuit City, who fired all their most experienced (read: highest-paid) employees and then saw their customer service ratings tank, which ultimately put the company into bankruptcy. The same thing is happening with newspapers, according to Carr--and the tech trade press, I'd add. "It is not just the cutting, but the cutting of more-experienced staff, a kind of slow-motion suicide," in Carr's words.

I needn't point out my blatant self interest in siding with Carr. But in the small world of the tech trade press, we've all seen the results of taking the Circuit City route. Colleagues get laid off, editorial quality declines and advertisers look to other venues. That has helped some smaller fish like Portable Design (full disclosure), but the overall effect has been a decline in quality coverage of the industry. There are fewer of us left and we're all stretched pretty thin.

What's the Alternative?

Ultimately content is king and the vehicle for providing it is secondary. This may be reassuring news to editors and journalists, but it doesn't address the problem faced by publishers. Print costs continue to escalate while ad budgets decline. That's one reason for a big shift from print to online advertising, which is cheaper. But as any publisher knows, when your advertisers trade print ads for online ones, you're trading dollars for dimes--which is largely why advertisers are going online. Your publishing costs decline sharply but your revenues decline even more sharply. So the cost of your editorial staff now becomes your number one expense. What do you do?

Killing print entirely is one option. If you were having trouble making money on print before, keeping a smaller version of a magazine going once ads move online is even less cost effective. Why not kill it off altogether and go 'online only' as Byte, eNews and many others have done long since?

Because rumors of the death of print are both exaggerated and premature. Computers are a better retrieval mechanism than print pages, but the latter are still a helluva lot better presentation medium. I read four newspapers online every day--and check in on numerous blogs--but I far prefer to read feature articles in print. I read the news in EE Times every day but read the print editions of EDN and Electronic Design in preference to their digital editions, which I notice they're starting to flog of late.

I also actually read ads in print, where you can glean much more technical information than you can possibly fit into an online banner ad. Granted, click-through information is useful--though not very, unless you construct separate landing pages for each ad---and even then you need to cajole readers into registering in order to capture any really useful information. Just put a URL at the bottom of your print ad and you get the same results. When I click through from a banner ad, I'm usually just curious; when I go to a web site after reading a print ad, I'm serious.

So print is the preferable place to push products.

Product Mix

So my simple answer to a complex problem is: you need variety of information outlets, all of which channel the views and opinions of the best people in the business. News goes online, features in print, show coverage in videos and interviews in both video and print. The perceived value of each of these channels--which will vary directly with the value of the content you deliver through them--will determine the success of any business plan built around them.

With the publishing industry going through a major transformation right now--the dynamics of which the best and the brightest are all trying to decipher--it's prudent to spread your bets by maintaining a wide product mix. None of those elements alone may prove sufficiently successful, but in the aggregate they should.

If you have compelling content.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Wi-Fi on Amphetamines

Almost lost in all the election media frenzy was the FCC’s approval yesterday of a plan to open the white spaces between broadcast TV channels to cell phones, laptops and a wide range of portable consumer electronics devices. These frequencies between 54-698 MHz are highly prized, as they can easily penetrate buildings and other obstructions; they also enable far faster communication than you can get over Wi-Fi, which operates at 2.4 and 5 GHz.

“White spaces are the blank pages on which we write our broadband future,” said Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein during the meeting. “Let's hope this is not just Wi-Fi on steroids but Wi-Fi on amphetamines as well because it will be that fast.”

How fast is that? Cable modems—the fastest it gets right now—can theoretically deliver 20 Mbps downloads, though mine typically tops out at 5 Mbps when no one else is online and the wind is right. While I haven’t seen any test results, some sources are predicting multi-channel MIMO white-space modems in a few years delivering 40 Mbps—an 8x improvement over the best you can hope for currently.

I Hear You
The decision was hard fought, with Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Bill Gates personally lobbying the commissioners on the importance of opening up these channels, which they claimed would spur both competition and innovation. AT&T and Verizon—who paid heavily for C Block spectrum in the FCC’s recent auction—were against the idea, though their obvious economic self interest didn’t contribute to their credibility.

The strongest opposition came from the entertainment industry, who feared that unlicensed devices on these frequencies would interfere with wireless microphones. Even Dolly Parton weighed in, asking the commissioners to delay the hearing so she could comment further. Dolly Parton appearing before the buttoned-down FCC would certainly have caused enough of a media circus to break into the evening news—and derail the proceedings. In the end Chairman Martin ruled that the public interest was best served by opening up the white spaces for unlicensed portable devices.

Trust and Verify
Low-power, unlicensed wireless devices are covered by Part 15 of Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Under Part 15 compliance is a self-approval process where the manufacturer performs the necessary tests and determines that the device complies with the rules. The FCC makes the rules and trusts the manufacturer to verify compliance. Every low-power wireless device you own has a Part 15 compliance stamp on it somewhere.

In this case the FCC went one step further, conducting extensive device tests to verify that in fact unlicensed devices could co-exist in the white spaces without causing interference to legacy users. “Normally, the Commission adopts prospective rules about interference and then certifies devices to ensure they are in compliance,” Martin said in a statement. “Here, we took the extraordinary step of first conducting this extensive interference testing in order to prove the concept that white space devices could be safely deployed.”

Hang In There
While the FCC ruling has immediate effect, the white spaces won’t open up until next February, when all U.S. analog TV signals go off the air. It will then take some time for consumer electronics manufacturers to get their new wireless devices certified and into production, and it will take longer to get the wireless infrastructure in place.

So “Wi-Fi on amphetamines” isn’t right around the corner, but it is coming soon. It will be worth the wait.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ire at IR

On the surface it seemed to make sense. On August 15 Vishay made an unsolicited offer of $1.6 billion to acquire International Rectifier, a venerable company whose discrete power-management IC product lines would complement Vishay’s. IR had fallen on hard times, their stock had tanked, and Vishay apparently saw this as an acquisition opportunity. IR, in turn, just saw it as opportunistic and rejected the offer out of hand. As Richard J. Dahl, IR’s Chairman of the Board, put it in his response, “Your proposal is inadequate, opportunistic and not in the best interests of International Rectifier and its shareholders.”

Not being one to give up easily, on September 9 Vishay increased its offer slightly to $1.7 billion and announced its intention to nominate three candidates to IR’s board. This is reminiscent of Carl Icahn’s move on Yahoo’s board after they repeatedly rejected Microsoft’s buyout offer. Jerry Yang still has his job but no longer his job security. Whether Oleg Khaykin, IR’s CEO, winds up in the same position remains to be seen.

Vishay rightly sees an IR acquisition as complementing its product lines, though whether their cultures are complementary is unclear. What is clear is that Vishay can’t afford to leverage itself too much farther in order to top up its offer, though if it did get the support of both boards, it could raid IR’s cash kitty of $700 million to complete the financing.

An old line company with strong market share, depressed stock and a big cash stash is a tempting takeover target. IR is a proud company and wants to work its way out of the doldrums. Vishay is facing a market with shrinking liquidity, so raising the cash won’t be easy.

Stay tuned to see how this shakes out.

The Androids Among Us

The buzz is we’ll have Androids in time for Christmas. The FCC has approved the HTC Dream, the first handset based on Google's Android mobile platform. According to an AFP report, T-Mobile will launch the device, probably in time for Christmas sales. the Washington Post reports that the HTC Dream will feature a touchscreen, Wi-Fi, a BlackBerry-style 'jogball,' a Safari web browser, and Google applications such as Gmail, Maps, and YouTube.

Meanwhile the Android Software Development Kit (SDK) is still in beta test, though Google recently released version 0.9, which it claims is “now pretty stable and we don’t expect major changes.” This is a pretty unproven platform on which companies are expected to make multi-million dollar bets. Still, the lure of avoiding paying licensing fees to Microsoft or Symbian for their mobile OS’s has induced a lot of big players to sign on with Google’s Open Handset Alliance.

Android may take a while to get its legs under it, but it’s certainly a well-funded startup and one that’s already creating huge waves in the handset market even before it’s finalized. This will be an interesting ride.

CEO Interview: Necip Sayiner, Silicon Labs

While Austin-based Freescale and AMD have been taking their lumps of late, Silicon Laboratories (SiLabs) quietly continues to be a major Austin success story. It’s admittedly easier when you’re not taking aim at the big dogs—and thus not winding up in their cross hairs—but SiLabs has continued to innovate its way to healthy growth for a number of years now in highly competitive wireless markets.

SiLabs is a fabless semiconductor company focused on high-performance, analog-intensive, mixed-signal ICs. Their biggest revenue generators are their VoIP and embedded modem products, the latter being widely used in high-definition set-top boxes. Their CMOS FM tuners are designed into mobile handsets by virtually every manufacturer, and they’ve recently introduced a 3x3 mm AM/FM receiver. In the horizontal space, they’ve shipped over 100 million low-cost, mixed-signal MCUs and 100,000 development kits. This mixed vertical/horizontal strategy has resulted in a GAAP gross margin of 63% for the latest quarter and a 38% increase in revenues over the same quarter last year.

In March, 2007 SiLabs sold its AERO RF transceiver line to NXP for $285 million. Using some of the cash from the sale, in January SiLabs bought Integration Associates, who make ASSPs for short-range wireless and audio subsystems. Much of the rest of the cash is earmarked for SiLabs’ extensive R&D pipeline.

Portable Design sat down recently with SiLabs’ CEO Necip Sayiner to ask about its products, its business model and its plans for the future.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

CEO Interview: Steve Sanghi, Microchip

While “Intel Inside” has been a huge marketing success, “Microchip Inside”—a tag line I just made up—has been a huge sales success. While you may have one Intel processor inside your notebook computer, chances are you have dozens of Microchip microcontrollers around the house—in your washer, dryer, refrigerator, thermostat, even your kids’ toys. Microchip has long dominated the 4- and 8-bit MCU markets and is now a serious player in 16- and 32-bit devices as well. They’re also nicely profitable.

It wasn’t always so. When Steve Sanghi took over the helm at Microship 18 years ago, the company was so dysfunctional as to be moribund. As Sanghi tells it, “We had problems in sales, financial issues, product roadmap issues, technology issues, quality, reliability and others.” Sanghi designed the Aggregate System—the subject of the 2006 book Driving Excellence—an enterprise-wide constant improvement plan that turned the company from a basket case into an industry leader.

Portable Design asked Sanghi about some of the challenges Microchip is currently facing: How do you support thousands of customers in horizontal markets? Why choose from among 500 MCUs when I can use a single programmable one? Aren’t SoCs going to crowd dedicated MCUs off of the PC board? Sanghi had a ready answer to these and other questions. Suffice it to say he sees a large and growing role for Microchip MCUs in portable devices. Considering how consistently Microchip has been right, I wouldn’t recommend betting against the house.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Radio Sport

You know you’re a true tech geek when you play at what they pay you to do at work--or in my case, write about.

In Portable Design we spend a lot of time covering low-power wireless issues—from exploring evolving air interfaces to explaining how to design them into your next portable gadget. In my spare time I design and build low-power wireless transceivers that operate in the amateur radio (‘ham’) bands. Working exclusively below 30 MHz, I don’t worry whether my 5 GHz UWB signal can reach from my living room to my bedroom TV. I’m more concerned about whether Serge can hear my 5W 14 MHz signal in Tahiti or Joao in Brazil. Since local deed restrictions relegate me to using an attic dipole, that’s a neat trick.

“Daddy listens to static.” What’s that about? In an age when cell phones have made people blasé about international wireless communications, ham radio seems like a relic—and in some ways it is. Why would you spend time analyzing sunspot cycles, atmospheric ionization and the maximum usable frequency (MUF) for wireless communication between your home and Brazil when you can just pick up your phone can call someone there?

Cell phones are fine for point-to-point communications when you know who you’re calling. Ham radio is fun precisely because you never know who you’ll wind up meeting. It’s a mixture of science and serendipity—like sailing. Sure, you could fire up an engine and get somewhere faster and more predictably. But as in sailing you’re harnessing a force of nature—in this case the ionosphere—and working with it for the sheer joy of the adventure. The Germans refer to ham radio as “radio sport,” which seems a fitting term.

Still, there is a lot of science involved, and not just in analyzing propagation. Hams have long experimented with different data communications modes, inventing more than a few. I was only able to contact Serge and Joao with my tiny transmitter because I was using PSK31, a type of binary phase shift keying invented by Pete Martinez, G3PLX. PSK31 transmits 31.25 bits per second, using a binary code whose length varies with the popularity of the letter (‘e’ is two bits, ‘z’ is nine). This makes for a very efficient modulation protocol, well suited to low power stations.

If band conditions permit, you can switch to QPSK31—quaternary phase shift keying—which adds a second BPSK carrier that is 90 degrees out of phase with the first. The second channel carries redundant bits, so QPSK adds a convolutional encoder to generate one of four different phase shifts that correspond to patterns of five consecutive data bits. On the receiving end a Viterbi decoder sorts it all out. All of this magic is done using your computer’s sound card and Pete’s software. Plug your computer into a 5W transmitter, add a decent antenna, and you can get a lot farther than the nearest cell tower.

Hams have invented and are using a number of other interesting air interfaces. Whereas PSK31 uses anywhere from 2-12 symbols per text character, MFSK (multi-tone frequency shift keying) uses only one—but modulates an RF carrier with as many as 16 different tones; while slower than PSK31, MFSK signals are less affected by multipath errors. MT-63 uses 64 different tones, plus forward error correction; MT-63 is robust against selective fading. Olivia uses a two-layer code and Walsh Functions, making it readable even when the signal is 10 dB below the noise floor (“Can you hear me now?”). JT65 is a digital protocol optimized for the extremely weak signals found in earth-moon-earth (EME) communications on the VHF bands. When not bouncing signals off the moon, hams can communicate via one of several satellites—called OSCARs (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio)—that support VHF and UHF communications.

Ham radio has come a long way since I got started. I got my novice license just after my 11th birthday. I got on the air using a WWII surplus BC-654 transceiver (AM and CW) that ran off a battery and dynamotor. One of my first contacts was the postmistress of Vladivostok. I ran out and bought a world map and started sticking colored pushpins into places I worked, reading up about them in the encyclopedia at the local library. Ham radio really opened up the world for me. Now my kids can read all about Vladivostok on Wikipedia and call there on their cell phones. Still, all the instant information available on the Internet doesn’t begin to substitute for the thrill of the hunt and the unplanned meeting with a stranger.

While I enjoy experimenting with digital RF designs, I’m basically into ham radio for one reason—because it’s fun.

John Donovan, K6YLG, has been a licensed amateur radio operator for over 50 years. When not writing for Portable Design or skulking about trade shows, he can often be found on the digital portions of the 20-, 30- and 40-meter ham bands. He’s also active in the Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES).

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cadence bids to buy Mentor Graphics

In this morning's bombshell, Cadence went public with its bid to buy rival Mentor Graphics for $1.6B. The all cash offer at $16.00 per share represents a 30% premium over Mentor's stock at close of market yesterday.

According to Cadence's press release, Cadence CEO Mike Fister first talked to Mentor Graphics' CEO Wally Rhines on April 15 about acquiring Mentor. This met with a cold shoulder from Mentor. According to Cadence, "On May 23, 2008, however, you informed us that, even without any substantive discussion with us or negotiation of our proposal, Mentor Graphics concluded that it did not wish to pursue discussions with us given Mentor Graphics' desire to stay independent. "

Apparently 'no' was not an acceptable answer, so now we get hostile. "It remains our preference to bring Cadence and Mentor Graphics together through a negotiated transaction. However, given Mentor Graphics' refusal to engage in substantive discussions with us concerning our all-cash premium acquisition proposal and the importance of this transaction to both companies' respective shareholders, we have decided to publicly disclose our proposal."

By buying Mentor, Cadence would acquire the industry leader in physical verification, design concept-through-verification and printed circuit board design--all areas where Cadence, for all its strengths, has been lacking. It could also raise serious regulatory issues, since Cadence, Mentor and Synopsys between them control 80% of the EDA market, on which the whole semiconductor industry depends. The acquisition would break up a comfortable oligopoly and replace it with a virtual monopoly in major design areas, leaving Synopsys a distant #2 and Magma off the charts. The third tier of creative EDA players would have virtually no exit strategy left other than acquisition, which would further consolidate an industy that badly needs their competitive juices.

Ex-Intel execs like Mike Fister are famous for being tough players, but in this case I think he's seriously underestimated Wally Rhines. Wally's been in the semiconductor industry almost from the beginning, cutting his teeth at TI, another notably tough shop. Wally's a nice guy in person but tough as nails under pressure. Going public moves this into the domain of a hostile takeover, and that's not going to go over well in Wilsonville.

The gaunlet is down. This is not going to be pretty.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

CEO Interview: John East, Actel

With Xilinx and Altera dominating the programmable logic space, you’d think that smaller players like Actel would be an endangered species. You’d be wrong.

Actel shipped its first product twenty years ago, an antifuse-based FPGA. They’ve long been strong in rad-hard mil/aero applications where SRAM-based products don’t hold up (though margins do). While not abandoning antifuse, Actel has moved aggressively into the consumer market with the introduction of its flash-based IGLOO family of FPGAs, which it claims are “the industry’s lowest power programmable solution.” While still hardly a Goliath, right now their sales and stock are doing nicely in a down market, thank you.

Actel’s CEO John East is a true believer about low power, and not just in chips. Along with Mark Thompson at Fairchild and T.J. Rogers at Cypress, East believes that energy conservation on a larger scale—going “green”—is also good business. Portable Design’s Editor-in-Chief John Donovan talked with East at ESC in April and asked him about the logic behind programmable logic as well as green technology.

Actel Corporation, Mountain View, CA (650) 318-4200 []

CEO Interview: Mark Thompson, Fairchild Semiconductor

While David Packard’s garage holds mythic status among entrepreneurs, it was Fairchild Semiconductor that first put the silicon in Silicon Valley. Founded 50 years ago by the famous Traitorous Eight, Fairchild gave the world the planar transistor, which broke the “numbers barrier” for interconnects, making the IC possible—not to mention the whole semiconductor industry. They then contributed Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore to help build it up and Gene Kleiner to help finance it.

Today Fairchild is the #1 global supplier of power analog, power discrete and optoelectronic components that optimize system power. Fairchild’s CEO Mark Thompson has become a leading advocate of “green technology,” developing products that converge applications into smaller, lighter, more efficient devices while consuming less power. Thompson is aware of the implications of energy savings on both the device and political levels. Portable Design talked with him recently about both.

Wally Rhines Interview

Mentor Graphics’ CEO Wally Rhines rarely sits still—except presumably on the Portland-to-San Jose ‘nerd bird’ that is his second home. Mentor’s performance under his leadership reflects his restlessness. Last year Mentor acquired Sierra Design Automation, whose Olympus-SoC place-and-route system bought Mentor a leading position in this market. Also last year Mentor acquired Dynamic Soft Analysis, a provider of thermal analysis software.

In the last 12 months Mentor has introduced their Veloce family of next-generation, hardware-assisted verification platforms; expanded their Questa functional verification product line; and launched TestKompress Xpress (on-chip test pattern compression), Precision RTL Plus (FPGA synthesis) and Expedition Enterprise 2007 and Board Station XE (PCB enterprise-wide design flows). While jousting with Cadence, Synopsys and Magma in the various corners of the EDA market, Mentor has managed to pull ahead in physical verification, design concept-through-verification and printed circuit board design.

In between his plane trips Portable Design managed to catch up with Mentor’s peripatetic CEO to get his take on low-power design, ESL, Catapult C vs. SystemC, the fate of EDA startups, the future of the EDA industry and Mentor’s place in it.

Friday, June 6, 2008

“You’re a self-destructive doomsday machine!!”

The 80s had Chainsaw Al Dunlap; the Naughties have Carl Icahn. In either case, Rule #1 is: “Try not to get their attention!” If you do, Rule #2 is: “Do not piss them off!”

That’s exactly what Yahoo’s Jerry Yang and the Yahoo board have deliberately done. Carl, of course, is a major Yahoo stockholder famous for—unlike his predecessor Chainsaw Al—taking over corporate boards at underperforming companies, firing the CEO and turning the firm around (Al preferred dismemberment). Yahoo certainly qualifies as ‘underperforming’, unless you’re willing to spot them points for ‘doing as well as they can’ against the Google juggernaut.

A lot of ink has been spilled about Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo—which Icahn strongly backs—and their subsequent rebuff(s). According to the recently unsealed complaint in a shareholder suit filed against Yahoo, when Microsoft refused to go away Yang created a ‘poison pill’ to ward off further Microsoft incursions, “an ingenious defense creating huge incentives for a massive employee walkout in the aftermath of a change in control. The plan gives each of Yahoo's 14,000 full-time employees the right to quit his or her job and pocket generous termination benefits at any time during the two years following a takeover, by claiming a ‘substantive adverse alteration’ in job duties or responsibilities.”

Now that really pissed Carl off. In a letter to the SEC this week, Icahn pointed out that in its latest offer, Microsoft “had earmarked $1.5 billion of retention incentives (representing over $100,000 per employee) meant to allay any employee concerns.” Icahn’s best line: “Until now I naively believed that self-destructive doomsday machines were fictional devices found only in James Bond movies. I never believed that anyone would actually create and activate one in real life. I guess I never knew about Yang and the Yahoo Board.”

Icahn will clearly mount a major proxy fight to take over the Yahoo board, oust Yang and cut a deal with Ballmer. That loud thud was the gauntlet hitting the floor.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Spectrum Politics

In real estate, value depends on “location, location, location.” The same is true for RF real estate, with $19.6 billion changing hands at the FCC’s recent auction of the 700 MHz portion of the spectrum. The results of that auction will have a major impact on mobile wireless access, as will the FCC’s pending ruling on the use of the remaining white spaces in the compacted broadcast TV spectrum (channels 2-59). Where there’s money involved, there’s politics—and in this case there’s plenty of both.

C Block

On February 17, 2009, analog TV in the U.S. will go off the air. The digital TV channels will be compacted into channels 2-51 (54-698 MHz), freeing up the 700 MHz portion of the spectrum (Channels 52-69, 698-806 MHz). The FCC auctioned off that real estate in March.

Google weighed in early on with a letter to the FCC requesting that access to this spectrum be open to all devices. When the FCC ruled in Google’s favor, Verizon filed suit challenging the ruling; faced with a firestorm of bad PR, they later withdrew their suit. Google, meanwhile, anted up $4.7 billion to bid for Block C (746-757 and 776-787 MHz). Verizon eventually outbid Google and paid $9.36 billion for six C Block licenses, promising that they would abide by the open access provisions (details to follow). This spectrum will now be used primarily for wireless telephony and data services, as well as TV broadcasts optimized for mobile and handheld devices.

AT&T, the other big auction winner, then announced that they too would open up their network (details to follow). Skeptics and conspiracy theorists abound, but implementations issues aside, Google’s having “put in the fix” for open wireless access is bound to spur wireless innovation and even faster adoption of portable wireless devices.

Google got what they wanted for next to nothing. “Gaming the system!” as their critics charge, or just good business? Both, it seems to me, and I couldn’t care less, since it’s smart, ethical and works out well for both designers and consumers.

White Spaces

With the 700 MHz spectrum now off the table, the scramble is on for the remaining “white spaces” or guard bands between the new digital TV channels. In 2004 the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that would open up these chunks of spectrum for unlicensed low-power, portable devices as well as higher-power fixed devices that could provide broadband wireless access to portables—as long as they include a “spectrum sensing” capability that would enable them to avoid interfering with TV broadcasts and wireless microphones. The IEEE quickly started to work on IEEE 802.22, a standard for wireless regional area networks (WRANs) that would work in these white spaces. The SDR Forum got very focused on the spectrum sensing problem, since that’s one area where cognitive radio holds considerable promise.

Google wrote a letter to the FCC stating, “Coupled with the ‘Android’ open-source platform for mobile consumer devices, TV white spaces can provide uniquely low-cost mobile broadband coverage for all Americans.” Joined by Microsoft, Dell, HP, Intel, Philips and others—now calling themselves the White Spaces Coalition—Google called for unlicensed, open access to this spectrum.

It didn’t take long for the Empire to strike back. The CTIA, representing carriers and broadcasters, suddenly thought it would be a great idea to license and auction off these spaces to the highest bidder. The CTIA was joined by the NAB, the NFL, NBC, Disney and Shure—leading “a broad coalition of high-profile wireless microphone users, organized as the Microphone Interests Coalition (MIC).”

Microsoft didn’t help out here. In August 2007 they proudly sent the FCC a cognitive radio they developed that they claimed “detected DTV signals at a threshold of -114 dBm in laboratory bench testing with 100 percent accuracy.” The test device failed for FCC engineers not once but twice. This brought demands from broadcasters to give up on spectrum sensing and just license the frequencies (presumably to them). Philips is hoping to ride to the rescue with its own cognitive radio system before the FCC ends field testing in June. Look for a ruling in October.

So while you toil away over a hot oscilloscope or compiler, your wireless future is being worked out in C Block and the White Spaces. As Dave Barry would say, hey, what a great name for a rock band!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Apple Buys PA Semi—What Was That About?

Apple sent shock waves through the industry with its acquisition this week of PA Semi for a reported $278M. Does this mean that Intel—who had great hopes of seeing next-generation iPhones and iPods based on Atom—and Samsung, who make the iPhone’s ARM-based applications processor, are hosed? Basically, yes.

PA Semi’s PA6T-1682M is a 64-bit low power dual-core version of the PowerPC architecture that Apple used in its computers before switching to Intel. Capable of delivering 8,800 Dhrystone Mips while running at 2 GHz, this chip is clearly much better suited to server blades and high-end embedded applications than it is for portable designs. Apple coyly let on that it was acquiring the firm for its IP and design expertise and had no interest in producing chips, at least for the merchant market. That caused a chorus of cries from mil/aero contractors, who have been scooping up PA’s chips as fast as they could acquire them for a wide range of (presumably rack-mounted) applications. Some have reportedly been whinging to the Department of Defense (DOD), asking them to block the acquisition so that the processors will continue to be available.

Apple’s lawyers can probably deal with any DOD objections by licensing generic versions of PA’s design to silicon manufacturers. What Apple apparently has in mind here is getting tighter control of the hardware, not to mention importing the profits that Samsung and ARM have been enjoying to date. Steve Jobs has long stated that Apple’s winning edge is tight integration between hardware and software, and this acquisition will enable new levels of hardware/software co-design—not to mention a scaled-down version of PA’s current chip that will fit perfectly into Apple’s next-generation of products. I’m sure TMSC will welcome them with open arms.

What does this mean for the rest of the supply chain? Mostly angst. This hits Intel at a bad time; they need some big design wins for Atom, and the iPhone/iPod socket would have really launched the architecture. Intel is counting on Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) as the Atom launch platform, but MIDs are barely beyond the concept stage, and it’s unclear that they’ll get any real traction. OTOH, sub-notebooks seem to be coming back, thanks to the Asus Eee PC 701 (currently based on a Celeron processor), and this is a market where Atom could take off. So don’t sell your Intel stock just yet. Same for ARM, who have the luxury of being ubiquitous in the embedded and portable space. Shed a tear for Samsung, however. PortalPlayer can feel your pain.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

CEO Interview: Tom Hart, QuickLogic

After a decade or two of competing head-on with Altera and Xilinx in what CEO Tom Hart refers to as a “Coke and Pepsi market,” QuickLogic looked for other ways to leverage its programmable technology. In 2007 QuickLogic reinvented itself as a purveyor of ‘customer-specific standard products’, or CSSPs. Building on their ArcticLink and PolarPro OTP platforms, QuickLogic offers semicustom parts tailored to customer designs, including proven IP blocks, custom logic and software drivers. Customers stock an inventory of products that may be 80-90% programmed for their designs and customize the rest as the need arises—a sort of ‘roll your own ASSP.”

QuickLogic is primarily focused on portable designs, where cost and low power are of paramount importance. Portable Design sat down with QuickLogic’s CEO Tom Hart to explore how and where this approach fits into the portable arena.

You can watch the video below:

If you'd rather just listen to Tom, click on the link below, or click here if you'd like to download the podcast.

The Road to Barcelona

AMD announced today that it is finally shipping its quad-core Phenom (3/G Opteron) chips, formerly known as Barcelona. Having spent the past year shipping triple-core versions with a crippled fourth core that it took them that long to fix, AMD is reportedly “aggressively pricing” the new chips. In other words, they’re sacrificing margin in an effort to claw back market share from Intel, who have meanwhile been executing flawlessly on their 45-nm quad-core designs.

AMD’s new chip only beats Intel’s on a few benchmarks, so they’re short on options other than competing on price—unpalatable as a tactic and disastrous as a strategy. This is a particularly painful choice for AMD, since they’ve been hemorrhaging money for the past few years and their cost structure is seriously out of whack. The latter means that even with big design wins from H-P, which they also just announced, the spike in revenue probably won’t get them back into the black, and certainly not for long.

AMD’s total operating expenses in 2007, excluding the $5B expense of acquiring ATI, amounted to 121% of sales compared to 79% for Intel. Part of that stems from high SG&A expenses—23% of sales revenues vs. 14% for Intel. When you aren’t selling a winner, it’s a lot more expensive to create demand than to satisfy it.

Meanwhile AMD’s 2007 R&D expenses amounted to 31% of total revenue vs. Intel’s 15%, pretty much the industry standard. Much of the excess had to go into frantically trying to fix Barcelona’s cache flaw; the rest probably went into trying to improve yields at 65 nm and solving new problems at 45 nm—both very costly undertakings.

AMD has promised to look into going fabless, something I’ve long advocated. TSMC is at least one generation ahead of AMD and always will be. Set up a team of designers in Hsinchu and transfer your process design costs—not to mention huge CAPEX—on to the fab. And sell your costly German fab, whatever the political costs. You can’t manufacture in Europe and make money. Just ask Infineon, Qimonda and ST (well, they’ll deny it; look at their balance sheets instead).

Going private is an attractive option, especially now that AMD has a competitive product again. But that option may be dead for now thanks to the turmoil in the financial markets. The Blackstone Group, who took Freescale private, is reportedly in dire straits, as are many if not most private equity investment and hedge funds. This would be a good road for AMD to take when it opens up again.

Meanwhile, Hector should have lunch with NVIDIA’s Jen-Hsun Huang to talk about a buyout. The alternative, if he waits too long, will likely be a major buy-in from Carl Icahn, who’s always looking for underperforming assets. And you know where that leads.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Is that the Internet in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

Intel today finally rolled out its Atom chip family at IDF Shanghai. This is the same chip family previously ballyhooed at IDF in San Francisco last year. Having never had a chip that could get them into cell phones, Intel is looking to Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) to deliver a better Internet browsing experience than you can currently get on handsets. Can’t crack a market? Create a new one.

Atom is a good generation away from being able to deliver the same power profile, not to mention the performance, of an ARM Coretex-A8—and that’s if ARM stands still. While not doubting Intel’s engineering chops, it’s far from clear that consumers will be willing to pay $500 for yet another portable gadget to stuff into their pockets along with their cell phones and iPods. They don’t even need iPods anymore—the iPhone is an iPod with a great screen that can also make phone calls. And cruise the web nicely, thank you.

It makes sense that Intel would roll out Atom in China, a hot market for mobile devices and the only one that ARM and its licensees doesn’t entirely own. Good luck with the margin, guys.

[OK, I’ll lay off the MID after this post]

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Does the iPhone Represent the Birth or Death of the MID?

Since last year’s IDF, Intel—being late to the portable market—has made much of the putative Mobile Internet Device (MID), designed to replace mobile phones for web surfing, which they admittedly do badly. MIDs, not coincidentally, would all be powered by Intel’s new low-power Silverthorne processor, now renamed Atom.

Let’s ignore the technical merits of Atom for now. AnandTech has done a fine analysis of Atom vs. ARM’s products, and suffice it to say that a 2W power profile may be hot stuff in the x86 world, but MIDs—should they take off as a category—are far more likely to be powered by ARM  processors for the next few years.

Another interesting analysis comes from M:Metrics, who tracked 10,000 new iPhone users for six months after the phone’s launch. Far from wanting to go out and spend $500 to buy yet another gadget to put in their pockets, iPhone users were avid web surfers—much more so than their smartphone compatriots:





Any news or info via browser




Accessed web search




Watched mobile TV and/or video




Watched on-demand video

or TV programming




Accessed Social Networking

Site or Blog




Listened to music on mobile phone




Source: M:Metrics, Inc., Copyright © 2008. Survey of U.S. mobile subscribers. Data based on three-month moving average for period ending 31st January 2008, n = 31,389.

*Smartphones include devices running Windows, Symbian, RIM or Apple operating systems. 

You could argue that the data were skewed because smartphone users tend to be business types who use them more for email, whereas iPhone users are younger and hipper—as the social networking stats would indicate. That may be true, but I find it more likely that the iPhone is just a lot better platform for working online than the current generation of phones, BlackBerries included, and it’s unleashing a pent-up demand for portable online access.

Depending on how you look at the iPhone, it’s either the first generation MID or the nail in the coffin of a nascent product category that will quickly be made irrelevant by a new generation of smartphones.


Sunday, January 6, 2008

CEO Interview: Mark Thompson, Fairchild Semiconductor

After inventing the planar semiconductor and giving birth to the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley, Fairchild Semiconductor has gone on to become a premier power semiconductor company–and more, recently, an active advocate of green technology, an area where it’s well positioned to make some significant contributions.

Portable Design sat down with Fairchild’s CEO Mark Thompson to catch up with his views on portable power, green power, and where the semiconductor industry is headed. The following video is an excellent primer on all three. The interview will appear in the February, 2008 issue of Portable Design.

CEO Interview: Sanjay Srivastava, Denali Software

Right after choosing a CPU for a new design, the next thing most designers then turn to the memory subsystem. With a wide—and rapidly evolving—range of choices between memory types, interfaces and devices, there is a lot to sort through. Denali Software sits right at this decision point, providing models for simulating and verifying most memory devices; verification IP for validating compliance with complex interface protocols; NAND flash management software; and memory controller IP for PCI Express, DDR-SDRAM, and Flash.

Portable Design sat down with Denali’s CEO Sanjay Srivastava, as well as Brian Gardner, Denali’s VP for IP Products, and Marc Greenberg, Technical Marketing Manager, to discuss the ins and outs of memory modeling and management in portable designs.
You can listen to the interview below or download it here.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Crash of 2008?

From today's "Good Morning Silicon Valley", courtesy of the San Jose Merc:

"I am only going to make one prediction, but one with broad impact. We will see a dot-com crash in 2008. It will be more prolonged and deeper than the crash of 2000. The crash will be driven by a recession and prolonged slow growth in the U.S. Global investment capital will flee to quality, ending the speculative dumping of cash on Web 2.0 startups. "Venture capital firms will seek to limit their losses by forcing many of their portfolio companies to liquidate or seek a buyout. ... Startups that managed to get cash before the bubble collapses will have a cash horde, but will find little opportunity to rest on it. ... The big players will not be immune from this contagion. Google, in particular, will find its one-trick pony lame, with the advertising market suddenly stagnant or contracting and substantial new competition. ... Google and Yahoo will find their available cash dropping and will do substantial layoffs." -- Entrepreneur and blogger Greg Linden gets in an early entry for this year's Cassandra Contest

What do YOU think? RSVP.

Intel Quits OLPC Board

PC World reported this morning that Intel had resigned from the board of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) consortium, having only joined the group in July. The breakup reportedly came about because OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte insisted that Intel abandon its own Classmate PC effort and throw its support behind OLPC's XO notebook, which is built around an 433 MHz AMD Geode LX-700 running Red Hat's Fedora Core 6 version of Linux. Needless to say, this configuration doesn't go over well in either Santa Clara or Redmond.

OLPC's desire to have Intel on board is understandable. To date they haven't come close to hitting their target of the "$100 notebook," $180 being closer to the truth. With their low-cost manufacturing prowess--not to mention marketing muscle--Intel could have helped considerably.

The more interesting question is Intel's motives in joining OLPC in the first place. OLPC could be a great marketing channel for a notebook based on a low-power Intel processor--though the latest generation won't start shipping for some months yet. When Intel joined OLPC, both sides agreed to stop dissing each other's efforts, which was a win/win scenario. Those days are now over.

Since the XO has been an AMD product from the beginning--and since OLPC is the Classmate PC's only real competitor--the more cynical among us may recall Michael Corleone's advice to "keep your friends close but your enemies closer." Being on the OLPC board, Intel was certainly privy to OLPC's strategies, tactics and contacts as well as their product plans and specifications. Will this knowledge enable them to compete more effectively with OLPC? Obviously. Even if they signed NDAs, will they forget what they learned? Obviously not.

This is not to impute nefarious motives to Intel, who have every right--indeed an obligation--to act in their own self interest. But it's hard to see this relationship as having been anything but a marriage of convenience from the beginning, one whose breakup was foreordained.

How this plays out will be instructive. If Intel takes the high road, the increased competition will benefit disadvantaged children around the world, which is what the non-profit OLPC effort is all about. OTOH if Intel gets really aggressive and manages to shoot down its smaller rival, then the only real winner will be Intel.