FOLSOM, Calif. --Taking another swing at Texas Instruments Inc. in its grand plan to conquer the market for handheld communications equipment, Intel Corp. is unveiling a technology platform based around its XScale microprocessor.
Immediately distinguishing itself from TI's DSP-driven efforts, the Intel Personal Client Architecture (IPCA) is based on the company's belief that new handheld devices will require more powerful RISC-style processing engines to handle the bulk of the workload. Not surprisingly, Intel unveiled the architecture this week at the Intel Developer Forum in Japan, where the company already has a presence in cellular handsets.
"When you're looking out two years from now, there won't be any real difference between PDAs and cell phones," said Hans Geyer, vice president of Intel's Cellular Communications Division in Folsom. "Every cell phone will have some PDA functionality, and every PDA will have cellular communications em bedded.... What it means is, you'll have more and more application programs running on those cellular devices."
With that in mind, Intel has distributed a preliminary specification detailing the IPCA architecture to "key wireless companies," with a final specification and software developers kit to be made available bythe end of the year. IPCA is key to Intel's mission to establish an industry architecture and unseat TI's rival Open Multimedia Applications Platform (OMAP), which dominates the sector.
Intel supplies about 60% of all the flash memory used in cellular handsets, but holds less than a 3% share of the processors used in the devices. An Intel processing solution is used in PDC handsets in Japan as a result of Intel's acquisition last year of DSP Communications Inc. That platform, however, also uses a TI digital signal processor (DSP) and is manufactured by TI.
To mount a stronger offensive, Intel is billing XScale as the high-performance processing alternative to TI's DSP-intensive str ategy. Of course, Intel's ultimate chipset solution will incorporate a DSP, while TI's chipset uses an ARM-based RISC processor; it's the relative importance of each device that Intel is arguing.
Intel is jointly developing the so-called "Frio DSP" with Analog Devices Inc. as part of a next-generation handheld-communications platform that executives have acknowledged will be integral to the package. The Frio is expected to be launched sometime before the end of this year, although Intel has made little public mention of the chip.
"I think Intel is still ashamed to say 'DSP,'" said Will Strauss, an analyst at Forward Concepts Co. in Tempe, Ariz. "But DSP will have to be a part of any 3G cellular-handset solution." Although Intel's share of the handset-processor market is minuscule, it will have an opportunity to gain ground as manufacturers of handsets and related PDAs migrate from 2.5G to 3G systems over the next few years, and even to 4G in 2004-2005, according to Strauss.
"It's expected the ha ndset market will grow to 1 billion units in the next few years, so even a small percentage of that market represents a significant opportunity," he said.
Intel believes that as handheld communications devices become increasingly data-centric, new opportunities will arise for its PCA.
Wireless clients will handle data-rich applications and Internet content such as streaming audio and video, which will place intense demands on the processing capabilities of handheld equipment. Devices that rely on microcontrollers or DSPs designed to manage the communication signal path, but not advanced computing functions, will be underpowered, according to Ron Smith, vice president and general manager of Intel's Wireless Communications and Computing Group.
Although Intel has not revealed the specifics of its silicon solution, it is expected to include a baseband chip consisting of an XScale/Frio combination to process communications, while a second XScale will be used to handle general computing. Not surprisin gly, TI mentions a similar need for more robust handheld hardware, but claims its DSP is best equipped to handle the heavy lifting.
TI's OMAP will feature a TMS320C55x DSP and ARM9 hybrid in the baseband chip, and an identical 'C55x/ARM9 engine to handle computing applications. The company plans to eventually integrate all four computing elements on a single chip, and is also working on an ARM10 implementation.
"DSPs are suited to handle real-time communications applications like streaming video and audio and voice recognition," said Mike Schoonover, strategic marketing manager at TI's Wireless Business Unit. "We believe that in order to handle the applications that are being talked about for 3G, and provide the highest performance and longest battery life, a DSP is needed."
Schoonover said that OMAP has already gained the momentum needed to make it "the blueprint for mobile communications," and has commitments from Ericsson, Nokia, and Sony, which will use OMAP in their 2.5G and 3G handsets. Intel's Geyer said that, in reality, handset makers are purely agnostic, and because most design their chipsets internally, there is always room for new players.
"Nokia designs it own chip," Geyer said. "Nokia writes its own code, decides what filters it uses. It's Nokia's IP and property. I don't want to downplay TI. They're a major supplier to the industry, but in a market of standard chipsets, everyone is about equal."
The XScale is a second-generation implementation of the StrongARM architecture, and was introduced at the Intel Developer Forum in San Jose in August. In addition to next-generation handheld appliances, XScale is expected to form the core for all of Intel's future communications offerings, including its next-generation IXP1200 network processors for infrastructure equipment. XScale is scalable from 1 GHz with 1.5 W of power consumption for high-performance applications, to lower levels such as 50 MHz with 10 mW of power consumption for battery-operated equipment in sleep mode.
By building its communications offerings around the XScale, Intel is providing an architecture based on an ARM processor design, which is one of the most common in the market, Geyer said. IPCA is a "development blueprint" that aims to help independent hardware and software developers build and bring computing and communications subsystems to market more quickly.
"Today's application-development environment for wireless devices is a serial and slow process," Smith said. "To help keep pace with the advent of next-generation wireless devices, hardware and software must be allowed to develop in parallel. [IPCA] has been designed with this objective in mind."
Moreover, basing the architecture around XScale instead of DSP will make it easier to gain third-party input, according to Smith. "There's a large base of developers who know how to write to microprocessors," he said. "By adopting the Intel PCA, developers can use the Intel XScale microarchitecture to stimulate new and exciting content and make the Internet a reality on personal wireless clients."
Intel will also provide wireless building-block components that can be used to develop handheld devices within IPAC.