Moto peddles world’s most integrated handset chip

Taking on TI

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Just weeks after it announced plans to spin off its semiconductor unit, Motorola has made its most radical chip announcement in years, throwing down the gauntlet to Texas Instruments and Intel in the mobile device arena with a single-chip smartphone platform.

Though the Mobile Extreme Convergence (MXC)architecture, unveiled at this week’s CTIA Wireless IT show in Las Vegas, has been in development for two years, the timing can hardly have been coincidental.

This was Motorola making the third announcement in six
weeks – the first being the resignation of its CEO Chris Galvin – designed to convince long suffering shareholders that the company is determined to shake itself up and regain some of its old vigor.

Based on the ARM core, the MXC incorporates nearly all the circuitry for a smartphone or PDA on one chip in a highly integrated device that will cut the cost and time to market for such products in half, according to Motorola. The chip can handle cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections and, in the future, WiMAX and UWB, and can receive signals from GPS satellites. It fits into the size of a postage stamp what would normally require a collection of over 300 components covering a business card-sized space.

While reducing the design to a single core and memory, it also entirely separates processing and applications, further simplifying development and the roll-out of a wider range of different models. Chips to run applications such as email or video have been kludged together with the wireless semiconductors, resulting in clumsy combinations of silicon that was never intended to work together, according to Franz Fink, general manager of the wireless and mobile semiconductor group. Now, call processing and applications processing will be separate, but with a shared memory, enabling developers to write once and port applications to any device. This means that applications can be developed on the ARM app processor without having to worry about baseband conflicts or FCC regulations.

The chip will not ship until late 2004, and then will switch from 90nanometer to the more advanced 65nm transistor size the following year. It has particularly high potential among OEM manufacturers targeting developing countries where price will be critical.

The launch is the bravest move from Motorola’s Semiconductor Products Sector (SPS) unit since it decided, two years ago, to sell all components except the casing to other mobile phone manufacturers.

Although it has signed up customers such as Siemens and Taiwan’s BenQ and Compal, the change of strategy has not been enough to stop the business falling
out of the semiconductor top 10 this year. Now, with independence on the horizon, the latest announcement could place SPS above the herd and also give Motorola’s cellphone division some cutting edge as the market moves towards compact, multimode handsets.

Motorola’s claims for its new architecture are ambitious. As well as making it cheaper and quicker to create a wide range of multimode, multimedia devices, with support for upcoming applications such as video on demand, the company also claims MXC will improve battery life, security, processing speed and memory. A security engine is built into the product, which Motorola says will encourage uptake of mcommerce and music download.

The unveiling of MXC is a major challenge to Texas Instruments, whose OMAP architecture is the dominant integrated platform for mobile OEMs, and to Intel, whose Personal Client Internet Architecture (PCA) is less established but has been scoring many of the profile points this year. Motorola is ramping up its attack on an addressable embedded processor sector that is expected to account for 900m chips within two years of MXC’s launch.

"Motorola has lagged on the applications processing side, and mobile in general, but this could be what it needs to catch up," said analysts at research company IDC.

There is a long way to go, not least delivering silicon that really works and building on the momentum of this launch – and the promise of such market leading functionality – sufficiently to make up for TI’s major headstart and the marketing aggression of Intel. But there is no doubt that the launch of MXC is helping to put Motorola in a new, brave light that
many have given up hope of seeing again. This will do many favors for the spin-off (or sale)value of SPS. If the other divisions of Motorola, especially the cellphone unit, can behave equally decisively, it may have a longer term positive effect on the company’s turnaround.

Technical notes: The new architecture is based on an ARM1136 applications processor running at 400MHz, a baseband processor based on the StarCore SC140, enhanced by Motorola, and a shared memory subsystem that incorporates an advanced crossbar switch for ensuring non-blocking communication between devices.

The baseband processor can run both digital signal processing and control functions, so that the normal MCU unit – which performs Layer 2 and 3 processing, radio resource management and user interfacing – is un-
necessary. The DSP handles GSM and can also perform baseband processing for Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth, with other protocols likely to be supported in future. Only RF sections and support for 3G are offchip, though still within the same package

© Copyright 2003 Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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