Forward Concepts Wireless/DSP Newsletter 12-3-2012

Freescale Exits DSP; Or Did They Really?

Last month, Freescale Semiconductor announced that they were terminating their stand-alone DSP business development and curtailing some multimedia development, leading to layoffs of a number of people, including over 100 in Israel.  However, Freescale will continue to serve the consumer multimedia space with strong i.MX6 products.  As you can imagine, several Freescale DSP engineers in Israel asked me to change their email addresses to their private ones…just in case.  But, with its StarCore DSP foundation Freescale is still the #2 player in base station and communications infrastructure DSP chips (following TI), so they are not leaving DSP silicon technology, just the off-the-shelf distributer-centric "DSP chip" business.

Ironically, Freescale will still be providing significant DSP capability with its Kinetis line of ARM Cortex Mx-based MCUs...which have DSP capability that is clearly suitable for audio, motor control, digital power supplies and much more.  Moreover, TI is also headed in the same direction with its MCU-based DSP business through its Stelaris product line, also based on DSP-capable ARM Cortex Mx cores.  The so-called digital signal controller (DSC) market is well addressed by these ARM Mx-based MCUs.  As I pointed out in my 2002 EETimes article, DSP is Dead; Long Live DSP.

TI Kills Wireless OMAP

Last month, Texas Instruments announced that it was leaving the wireless and tablet markets for its OMAP line of application processors, laying off some 1,700 people.  I suspect that many of those redundancies in France and Germany were former cellphone baseband people, too. And, like in Freescale's case above, I had several TI'ers request that I redirect this newsletter to their home email addresses (even in India).

A number of people have encouraged me to say "I told you so," since I clearly laid out TI's OMAP problem in my newsletter back in November 3, 2010, along with a suggestion to remedy the problem (by buying modem house Icera). And the company has had two years since then to re-think their continuing OMAP strategy.  Clearly, TI had few options for selling OMAP as an intact property, since virtually all of the cellphone providers already had their own application processor solution or else one available to them. So, TI will still pursue OMAP in smaller, but perhaps more profitable, markets.

The OMAP market outlook and the apparent downturn of the semiconductor industry probably forced the company's current timing.  Ultimately, I believe that TI made the right decision.

Mindspeed claims 1st commercial deployment of LTE small Cells in Korea

This month (December), Mindspeed expects to see deployment of the first commercial LTE small cells in Korea based on its SoCs.  Both Korea Telecom and SK Telecom were cited as implementers of the Mindspeed technology.  However, Mindspeed has not identified the OEMs providing the end products.

Samsung Fields LTE/3G/2G Smartphone Modem

As expected, Samsung has improved upon its earlier LTE-only cellphone modems (usually employed with Via Telecom CDMA modems for voice) and is now shipping its own LTE/3G/2G modem (CMC221S) in Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphones.  We expect that Via Telecom modems will still accompany Samsung LTE modems for Verizon and other CDMA-centric networks.  We anticipate that Samsung will eventually integrate that new modem architecture with its worthy quad-core Exynos application processor, but probably not until late 2013 or early 2014.

As both the major chip supplier for its own cellphones, Samsung has to give Apple some real concerns, since Apple only has application processor designs (the A5 & A6 being fabbed by Samsung) and no modem capability of its own. Apple earlier employed Infineon (now Intel) 3G modems, but has employed only Qualcomm modems in its recent iPhone designs. There are few opportunities to acquire an advanced modem design like Samsung's, so Apple has to be exploring possible in-house design (no easy task) or casting eyes on LTE/3G/2G modems from ST-Ericsson or Renesas Mobile.  Of course, Apple could acquire one of the several TD-LTE-only modem houses, but that would still require more work to take on FD-LTE plus 3G and 2G capability.

Tensilica & mimoOn Partner to Provide LTE PHY

Tensilica Inc., the other licensor of DSP technology (as well as a major licensor of MPU technology), has announced that it has entered into a tight partnership with mimoOn GmbH to provide a comprehensive hardware/software licensable IP solution for LTE cellphone and eNodeB (base station) physical layer (PHY) available exclusively on Tensilica's DSP and DPU (dataplane processor unit) IP cores.  Since the PHY is arguably the most challenging aspect of LTE modem chip implementation, the joint approach should give prospective licensees a higher degree of comfort than pursuing separate hardware and software approaches.

CEVA Makes a Higher Bid for MIPS

In my last newsletter, I mentioned that GPU licensing company Imagination Technologies was acquiring MPU licensor MIPS Technologies.  That announcement may have been premature.  CEVA, Inc., the leading licensor of DSP technology has offered a higher amount ($75 million cash) for the company in an attempt to outbid the GPU licensing company (which is offering $60 million).  All of this would follow the completion of the proposed patent sale transaction with Bridge Crossing.  Some have speculated that Imagination's acquisition would create competitive conflict with some of its own customers, who might then move their designs over to the ARM camp, with its competing Mali GPU cores.

On the other hand, if MIPS' MPU technology was to be licensed by CEVA, there would be no concerns of Imagination possibly competing with its own customers; in fact, some of CEVA's potential MIPS licensees could conceivably then license Imagination's GPU cores.  Food for thought.

Spreadtrum Announces its First TD-LTE Modem

Spreadtrum Communications has announced its single-chip multi-mode TD-LTE modem, the SC9610, will be shipping in a Hisense datacard that was awarded a portion of China Mobile's recent 4G procurement tender. Designed in 40nm CMOS, the SC9610 integrates multiple communication standards into a single-chip design, including multi-band TD-LTE, dual-band TD-SCDMA and quad-band EDGE/GPRS/GSM. The new modem is based on the CEVA-XC DSP.

Although TD-LTE is a China-centric air interface, it's still in its infancy there and is now being rolled out on a trial basis.  However, it is likely to become a huge market.

ARM & CEVA Post LTE Modem White Paper

ARM & CEVA have jointly posted an interesting white paper to the EETimes website that presents an overview of the challenges in managing the constraints of throughput, low latency, and low power consumption related to LTE and LTE-A Modems. It then proposes a solution combining the technologies delivered by ARM and CEVA, using their respective CPU and DSP technologies. The paper is posted here.
As always, I encourage your feedback.

Will Strauss
President & Principal Analyst
Forward Concepts