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.