Friday, September 29, 2006

A bit of a Lobster phone


Cambridge-based The Technology Partnership (TTP) has designed the mobile TV system used for the Virgin Mobile broadcast service launching next week in the Lobster 700 phone.
TTP took the basic GSM design from Chinese handset maker HTC and added the hardware and software for IP-DAB using a choice of different DSPs and tuners, rather than a traditional DAB chipset.
“We are agnostic to the semiconductor technology and optimised the software to extend the battery life,” said Martin Orrell, General Manager for Mobile TV at TTP. "Working with BT Movio, HTC and Virgin Mobile to make possible the roll out of the UK's first commercial broadcast mobile TV service. We believe this service launch will be an important catalyst for mobile TV growth worldwide. TTP expects its proven expertise and enabling software and hardware to be at the heart of many more services as the mobile TV market takes off around the world."

Lots of fuss over mobile TV

Several mobile TV chip makers have been 'participating' in the debate over whether the time is right for a single chip for DVB-H etc. Frontier Semiconductor launched a single chip at IBC, but DibCom said that fixed function optimised for cost are still the way to go.
Imagination Technologies hit back saying its programmable demodulator is pretty much the same size as a fixed function demodulator, so there.

This is what the fight is all about - the Nokia N93 with DVB-H mobile TV using the Dibcom demodulator, but TI is fighting hard to get its Hollywood single chip designed in.



But the argument is still where the different elements go: the demodulator can be integrated into the applications processor and this is the approach that graphics giant Nvidia is looking at (which is fine with Imagination becasue they will icesne you the technology to do that) but will be a bit of a blow to Frontier. But it leaves the RF tuner guys laughing.
But it's all horses for courses, as there will be some handset makers that want to put a simple single chip down on the design, and others that want to integrate it, so there will the time to market issues as well as cost. Designers such as TTP (above) are using whatever is best on the market (and they developed the first DAB module for Imagination that was later licensed to Frontier).
The kicker was Vodafone this week saying it doesn't actually like broadcast mobile TV such as DVB-H, as the broadcasters getthe money instead of them. Instead it will be using high speed 3G modem standards HSDPA and HSUPA (eg a chip from Icera Semiconductor and Qualcomm) to put the video over the 3G network, as they already have the spectrum (and have to pay for it) and the broadcasters don't.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Intel puts 80 processor on a chip

Intel has shown a research project to put 80 processors on a chip that will provide a teraflops of performance (compared to 4Gflops for today's 2GHz dual core Pentiums) in five years time. These 80 processors are floating point cores running at 3.16GHz, apparently, to get that performance, but I suspect that is a theoretical figure. If two cores at 2GHz produce 31W, imagine the heat off that lot (well over 1KW (ok 1.8KW) - sit round family and warm your hands!)



However, the ITRS semiconductor roadmap sees 79 processing elements on a chip by 2010 , but that is up from 23 this year and 32 next year (while Intel is still at, um, 2 - the quad part is two dual cores in the same package!).

Have a talk to Picochip in Bath, who today put 240 processor on a chip, and make them all work together for WiMax and 3G basestations in the home from companies such as Ubiquisys and IPwireless!

These are the ones who will drive to the ITRS predictions of 268 processing elements on a chip by 2015 and 878 (nearly a thousand processing elements on a single chip) by 2020.

The Biggs equation of work

Check out the excellent fun equation for work from John Biggs of ARM. It answers several deep and meaningful questions (like why teenagers have no money), but John, I fear you may get stuck with that one! Quoted on John Cooley's Deepchip EDA Blog.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A new model for delivering IPTV


Bob Giddy, CEO of Cambridge-based Amino Communications is very excited about his new set top box. The Aminet 125, based on TI's Da Vinci video processor, now allows a low cost IPTV set top box that can retail for GBP99. Good stuff.
But that's not the reason he is excited. He is talking to the suppliers of websites that have video - not just Youtube, but those like JumpTV that are providing streaming video over the Internet, for example if you like UK TV but live in the US or Japan. At the moment you play these on your PC, and ther is a lot of talk about connecting up that PC with the TV.
Bob's view is the other way around. Teaming up with the likes of JumpTV so that you can sign up and pay for a box on the Website along with your subscription, have UPS ship it from Amino to the customer, who plugs it into the phone socket and the TV and you have IPTV, cutting out all that expensive equipment roll out (as the customer pays for the kit), trials and testing by the telcos who want to provide IPTV. Once the box is in, JumpTV can sell other content services to the customer.
Bob likes this idea, and it makes a lot of sense.


The story gets even better when you think about the ability to insert interactive advertising on a local or individual basis through technology such as PacketVision (see how they can give the kit away below). Because PacketVision still owns the kit and charges on a 'per click' basis, it can sell the services to anyone on that network - the telco providing the line or the website provding the content, and everyone potentially wins. That's when it gets very interesting.

The problems come
a) if you have an HDTV - the pictures from the streaming vidoe won't look very good at all, and
b) if this really gets successful the telcos will kill it stone dead. That's why the DSL provision is on a 'best case' basis - if this got successful you would find that 'best case' really wasn't very good at all.

But here is the opportunity for the telco to team up with websites and share the revenue. Lets hope they see that!

A new way to do make money in IPTV...


...give your network kit away!

PacketVision is a very interesting startup in Reading in the UK (even if its name is far too close to video compression software company PacketVideo). It is taking standard off the shelf components, combining them with key software and producing networking equipment for the IPTV space that has the potential to change the economics of the business.
It has developed a 1U unit that can insert advertising into an IP stream on a local or even individual basis, fully interactively with full traceability, much like the Cherrypicker ad-insertion kit. But, because it is based on IP and a standard network processor from PCM-Sierra, it is a fraction of the price.
The interesting thing is that for the first customer trialling the system (in Alaska!) PacketVision is giving them the kit. And not just them. Anyone. And charging on a per-click basis.

This brings the Internet approach to broadcast. And as setting up the IP network is expensive, it will appeal to the operators. And it is possible because the kit is so much cheaper.
BUT - the really big thing is that becasue it stil owns this means that PacketVision can sell advertising to other people that use the infrastructure, not just the IPTV provider, again on a per-click basis. this becomes even more compelling with new IPTV models (see above).
So they are not a hardware company or even a software company but an advertising company!

Video

Please bear with me slightly while I experiment with video on this blog. Hopefully you wiull see things you haven't seen before - that is the point, such as this 3D fused display from NTT.


But please do make a comment if there are things you don't like - this is an evolving medium and no one has worked out how to combine video and what kind of video clips work. The videos will also be available from Jumpcut, so please email me for more details.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

16Gbyte Compact flash card

Sandisk's latest CF format card: 16Gbytes, for pro cameras and video cameras. $1049. Blimey.

Multi-dweller access moves up the curve

Equipment makers are starting to look at ways of providing digital TV to people who live in blocks of apartments.

UK-based set top box maker Pace Microtechnology is moving into providing telecom equipment with a new system to allow satellite and cable TV operators to offer their services to large blocks, while X-Digital Systems in the US is using 48 of ADI's Blackfin processors in a satellite receiver with FM modulator that allows satellite operators to stream digital audio to hotels and apartment complexes.

Many blocks of flat have restrictions on satellite dishes and cable access, and Pace has developed technology that essentially puts a small video headend on the roof of the building. This MultiDewellerUnit (MDU) is connected to the individual flats by the existing coax cable network used to pipe terrestrial TV to flats, so no new wires are needed, and would connect to a new set top box in the home. It uses QAM modulation to transmit the TV over the coax with an agile frequency hopping protocol to avoid interference, with an uplink from the set top box to the headend so that the user can change channels.

This technology would allow HDTV services and broadband data access up to 30Mbit/s with the same performance as today’s satellite or cable TV set top box in the living room. Linking a hard disk drive into the headend could also provide a local video on demand service.

The potential problem is that the equipment has to sit on the roof of the building and work reliably 24/7 for many years, and Pace has to demonstrate that it can meet the quality standards of other network equipment makers.

So Pace is now working with cable TV suppliers to put coax networks that are up to 30 years old into the lab to prove that the system will work and to demonstrate that it scales up to blocks with up to 50 flats. This covers over 60% of 'multi dwelling units' in Europe, says Pace.

US satellite set top box maker X-Digital is also using the coax infrastructure. Its MSL384 satellite receiver converts digital satellite signals to FM analogue signals that can be picked up by standard consumer audio receivers. Each receiver employs 48 Blackfin processors to decode 384 MPEG 1 Layer 2 Audio streams. Each processor handles eight MPEG 1 Layer 2 Audio streams, as well as ADI's AD9726 TxDAC 16-bit,
400 MSPS transmit digital-to-analogue converter onto the COAX network .

"With the MLS384, X-Digital is taking aim at the MDU audio services market. Because each Blackfin enables us to process multiple digital audio signals, X-Digital is able to leverage the MLS384 for the high density and low power needed in the MDU market," said Ian Lerner, President of X-Digital Systems. "In the past, carriers have lost out on this market because of their inability to provide satellite dish installs to every apartment."

Linux on Pentium in safety critical

LynuxWorks has developed what seems to be the first commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) open source Linux safety critical real time operating system (RTOS) that supports the Pentium processor.

LynxOS-178 2.2 adds Pentium X86 support to the established PowerPC and other platforms supported by existing releases to the 178 safety critical standard. Other enhancements in the v2.2 include support for distributed communications middleware products such as Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) or Distributed Data Systems (DDS). This architecture allows multiple different devices to communicate in distributed systems.

At the same time LynuxWorks has upgraded its flagship RTOS to LynxOS 4.2, with increased memory, an updated Linux Application Binary Interface (ABI) and support for new peripheral devices, including Serial ATA and PCI Express. LynxOS 4.2 has increased RAM (up to 1 GB), features a fully integrated, updated GNU tool chain (3.2.2) and an enhanced Linux ABI (based on glibc 2.2.93) to provide a streamlined development and execution environment. LynxOS is the only real-time operating system to offer a Linux ABI layer.

LynuxWorks has also upgraded its BlueCat embedded Linux operating system to improve the real time performance. The BlueCat 5.4 enhancements include support for Linux kernel 2.6.13, which results in improved performance, along with an updated GNU tool chain. Initial performance figures indicate that average interrupt response times are down by three times and average context switch times have been reduced by nine times showing a large performance leap over the previous 2.6 kernel. A marked improvement in determinism has also been observed with worst-case performance spikes having been reduced significantly.

This will be good news to all those who want a more reliable, deterministic Linux and use the Pentium.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Look past downloads to the pre-loaded video card



Today's announcement of a chipset for low end mobile phones from Agere Systems has a little bit more to it than just a product story. The X125 chipset allows a full phone to be built for $30, or $50 for one with a better screen that plays videos. This is key, as it brings this capability into the low end market.

This opens up a huge market, not for downloads, but for providing pre-loaded content on microSD cards.

The density is now sufficient for a full feature film on a 512Mbyte card (QVGA resolution, 25 frame/s) that is affordable - there are even money off deals that could be done to reduce the net cost of the card to zero. There is plenty of content around (perhaps the 6 best episodes of Coronation Street or any soap opera would be a key seller), and one card maker in particular already has the digital rights management, content protection and even routes to retailers that the studios need.

Is this coming now? Too right it is!

In October Disney is launching its Mix Max personal digital media player for kids, which will use, you guessed it, digital media cards for playing full-length movies, digital music, TV shows and viewing photos. The new gadget will be priced at less than $100.
"With the Disney Mix Stick, we proved that kids were ready for digital music," said Chris Heatherly, head of global electronics at Disney's consumer products unit. "The plug-and-play experience also proved to be a winning feature for parents who welcomed the idea of not having to download music for their kids."
SanDisk is the major supplier of SD and microSD cards, and has both DRM technology and deals with retailers already to sell its cards for phones and digital cameras. It has already been experimenting with pre-loaded content, shipping a Rolling Stones album earlier in the year.

It has also recently bought a company that specialises in low cost one time programmable memory - now that starts to get very interesting for your protected content.

These content deals are in the pipeline, says Pedro Varga, director of mobile entertainment at SanDisk, and they have many different routes to market, from branding the card with the content to co-branding. And it's not just video - the X125 also includes a Java engine running on an ARM926EJS processor, and just brought movies, video and games a whole lot closer.

This is the kind of video that was running on the reference platform, from a hard drive rather than a card.

Prize time?

The EUROPEAN ICT prize has been launched, with a total of EUR700,000 to be awarded to innovative projects.
The deadline for the European Information and Communication Technologies Prize is 4 December 2006, with 3 grand prize and 20 winners announced in February next year. Applications from any enterprise or lab in Europe can be made online at www.ict-prize.org.
The idea is to highlight innovative companies that convert novel ideas into marketable products, but they can only be as good as the applicaiotns - previous years have been somewhat mediocre, as I recall, and it is absolutely VITAL that Europe demonstrates its expertise in innovation. Last years projects seem to be mostly software-based, so some hardware innovation would be welcome.
All applications are assessed by independent experts from 16 European countries (so there will be lots of fighting) and an executive jury, composed of executives from 19 European countries will propose the Grand Prize winners (so there will be be lots of politics as well).
The selection criteria include technical excellence, innovative content, potential market impact, capacity to generate employment (politics!), contribution to the acceptance and understanding of ICT in society, and likely social impact.
Apply! Make it good. After all, you could win EUR200,000!

Creating an industrial powerhouse

GE Fanuc (not a name that has high profile in the industry in Europe I would argue) really is trying to create a major global player in industrial automation. It's business is building in the industrial market, up from low end embedded and mechanical applications, and last week it announced plans to acquire Radstone Technology here, a UK-based but US-focussed maker of aerospace and military equipment in a £130m ($250m) deal.
What makes it more interesting is that Radstone has been moving into the industrial space anyway, using its expertise with the high reliability systems.
Today it signed a deal with RST Industrie Automation in Germany to supply hardware that will run the LynuxWorks real time Linux and RST's Gamma COTS (commercial off the shelf) open architecture middleware to develop complete customer solutions in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
GE Fanuc last year acquired SBS Technologies, which was another mil/aero equipment maker that was aiming at industrial as well, and it seems the company is significantly building up its capabilties (although the Radstone deal brings more US mil/aero business than industrial). The key was that the management were expanding the industrial side!
If GE fanuc are smart, Radstone will make a strong base of engineering for both mil/aero and industrial in Europe. If not, they will just milk the mil/aero contacts and let it die.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Samsung pushes back the memory boundaries with 40nm, 32Gbit flash

Samsung is certainly pushing back the boundaries on memory technology with a 32Gbit NAND flash memory and launched its bid for the next generation of NOR flash technology. As the largest maker of memory, it does seem to be doing what it has to in order to keep ahead.
Since the 1Gbit and 4Gbit generations, as an industry we have become immune to the awe of the density of these devices. A 32Gb NAND flash memory can now be used in memory cards with densities of up to 64Gbytes, storing over 64 hours of DVD resolution movies (40 movies) or 16,000 MP3 music files (1,340 hours).
Using a 40nm process and a Charge Trap Flash (CTF) architecture for the first time, where the data is temporarily placed in a "holding chamber" of the non-conductive layer of the flash memory composed of silicon nitride, rather than using a control gate.
CTF reduces the noise between memory cells, which with 40nm stuctures is a major problem. Samsung says this is scalable down to 30 and even 20nm, and is only 20% larger than a standard control gate. This is a TANOS structure of tantalum, aluminum oxide (high k material), nitride, oxide and silicon, combining metal and high K for the first time in NAND flash, says the company.

Next generation NOR flash

At the same time Samsung is addressing the next generation of NOR. Current NOR flash technology used in mobile phones isn’t scaling well and will face reliability challenges in the future, so Samsung is proposing phase-change RAM (which it called PRAM and tries to call ‘perfect’ RAM – please don’t). This is similar to the chalcogenide technology that’s been in research for ten years, but the Samsung version has a vertical cell with a size half that of NOR flash and requires 20 percent fewer process steps, making it much cheaper to make. It is focussing on a 512Mit part that will start shipping in 2008 to replace traditional NOR flash.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Finally!

Finally! - NXP Semiconductor (Philips Semis as was) wins a set top box deal for its Nexperia chip!

But the deal with taiwanese box maker Wistron NeWeb is probably more important as it is the first time that the software from Cambridge-based Amino Communications has been used outside of Amino. The coppany has been working to open up its Intact operating system to other box makers, and this as the first deal is key. It won't do NXP any harm as the platform of Nexperia + Intact can now be used by others


"This is the first port of IntAct's proven software in a STB design from a company other than Amino Communications. The combination of the optimised IntAct software with a powerful silicon solution from NXP will enable WNC to bring a high-performance product to market rapidly. By using IntAct, WNC will eliminate the need for substantial R&D resources required to ensure such widespread interoperability with other elements of the IPTV supply chain."
said Bob Giddy, CEO of Amino.
"By basing our design on the STB810 reference platform running the IntAct software, we have been able to produce a compelling product with a variety of configurations. Our customers in the emerging markets can now use equipment with widely proven software, at a cost that competes with the local big name manufacturers,"
said Haydn Hsieh, CEO & President of Wistron NeWeb.
"Our customers will also be able to apply their own corporate branding to the equipment, thus making the link in consumers' minds between the service and the provider."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Compatibility boost at anniversary of National Instruments


Congratulations to National Instruments, celebrating 30 years in the business, 20 years of the LabView graphical programming tool and 18 years in the UK, and finally growing up by adding some key compatibility with tools that sort of compete, such as MATLAB.
To celebrate with a bit of fun, it has also teamed up with LEGO so that LabView can be used with the classical plastic blocks, creating virtual instruments to control the robots built in MINDSTORMS NXT.
The availability of the LabView toolkit for Lego Mindstorms NXT is critical for encouraging the development of additional tools for the system,
said Soren Lund, director of Lego MINDSTORMS. This allows third party developers to create software for the LEGO systems. Hi Technic Products for example has developed a digital compass sensor for the system using LabView.
Away from plastic blocks, the anniversary version of LabView, 8.20, adds the capability with other system development tools – most importantly with the MATLAB tools but also with Maplesoft Maple, Mathsoft Mathcad and Scilab. That can only help increase its appeal, and allow legacy designs to be used in LabView – surely a good thing.
And on the hardware side, the company has acknowledged that the high speed PXI Express is overpriced and putting off users. So it has launched a PXI Express chassis to build a custom measurement system with five slots and an integrated controller to link back to the PC, all for E950 (GBP655). This PXI-1033 is half the price of the previous entry point, and should encourage more users to take advantage of the high speed capabilities of 110Mbit/s to the host (although it has launched PXI Express cards that run up to 1Gbyte/s).

Friday, September 01, 2006

Selling out

US board maker Tek Micro has opened a design centre in Malvern in the UK in a veiled takeover of part of a UK company that used to be funded by the tax payer.

Tek had been working closely with the real time embedded division of Qinetiq, which is the technology and research arm of the UK's Ministry of Defence. It was partly privatised with investment from the Carlyle Group and floated on the London stock exchange in January.
A new design centre - great news! Except that the new design centre is actually part of the Qinetiq group.
So either Tek has recruited the 5 design guys from Qinetiq, who all resigned at the same time (I really don't think so) as the press release says
TEK Microsystems Limited initially includes a staff of five senior engineers all formerly of QinetiQ.
). Or there was a transfer of the group to it's partner Tek. If that's the case, then why pitch it as a new design centre. If it's a sale or a closing of the division by Qinetiq, then say so (they haven't said that, but this kind of thing is not exactly good governance for a public company either).

The design team has done some really good work, including the VITA55 proposal for linking FPGAs in real time signal processing applications, and they are an asset to Tek Micro.

I welcome a new design centre in the UK whole heartedly, but let it be a new design centre. Similarly, it's great for a very bright team to stay together and be productive with, hopefully, more investment. Just don't try to pull a fast one, please. At least some of us notice.

More to come on this one, I think

Philips morphs into NXP Semiconductor


Apparently the key theme of the Philips Semiconductor transition to a private company, NXP Semiconductor, is 'vibrant' (!). You woundn't guess it from some of the material (see picture).

Another key theme is 'asset light'. By which it seems they wish to be one of the worlds largest fabless chip companies (E4.77bn in 2005), perhaps thinking that fabless is sexy and fast moving and profitable, all the things Philips has struggled with in the past.

And what a past. Apparently there is 53 years of experience to draw on, which is a little ahead of the invention of the transistor, as far as I can remember. I'm sure they mean the electronics expertise, and it's a small quibble, but hey - this is the semiconductor business, not the electronics business.

So what have they got? Calling it NXP is a great sign that the Nexperia platform will stay - years ahead of its time, based around the TriMedia processor core, it needed lots of software development that Philips only realised a few years ago. (Perhaps after they realised they couldn't sell their decoder chips into the Philips set top box business for either SD or HD decoders, which was the main opportunity - especially as Philips Semis dominates the TV chip market)

After all, there is plenty of opportunity, and they see it - targetting E8bn in turnover by 2008, which is aggressive growth.

But they desperately need to get their marketing sorted out - it has been a disaster for several years, but the signs are not hopeful: NXP is just too close to flat speaker developer NXT for comfort, and not really the vibrant image that they are looking for (unless you want a pun on a vibrating speaker). And if they kill the Nexperia product line, it makes the NXP name look very silly!

As a customer, watch out. The Freescale spin out showed the risks involved, with restructuring after restructuring. Now that the private equity investors are in charge, there will be blood (for real this time) on the carpet with a reorganisation that will make the company inward looking for at least 6 months. As it has been inward looking for any years, that won't be stunningly obvious, and hopefully at the end of it the excellent engineering will be complemented by some excellent sales and marketing. But that will be well into 2007 and makes the E8bn target somewhat wishful thinking.

We can only hope.

Sponsored link: Silicon South West

News and comment from the technology cluster in the South West UK at www.siliconsouthwest.co.uk.

PLATINUM SPONSOR