Forward Concepts Wireless/DSP Newsletter 5-15-2013

Intel: Third Time is a Charm (or is it the Fourth?)  

How many times have we heard Intel say that its next member of the Atom processor line would finally be competitive with low-power ARM implementations? Every other year Intel carts out a new variant that will "finally" do the trick.  The next (and fourth?) iteration of the family, code named Merrifield is said to be the "turning point" for the company in mobile phones.  Although the 2012 launch of Medfield-based 3G phones came close, it didn't put a dent in ARM's market share. Merrifield will ship in 4Q13 and phones based on the SoC will be announced at MWC in February 2014.

But, the application processor is only part of the solution for a successful smartphone chip offering.  Multimode LTE modems and LTE RF transceivers are also necessary.  Yes, the Infineon-heritage RF transceivers have been fielded in Motorola LTE smartphones, but we're still waiting for Intel's multimode LTE modem.  It's our understanding that theInfineon-heritage multimode 2G/3G/HSPA+ (based on CEVA's DSP cores) will be married to the Blue Wonder-heritage single-mode LTE (based on Tensilica's DSP cores). Since the software between the two is not compatible, we expect that has led to integration problems and subsequent delays.

2G: A Major Nokia Thrust @ sub-$100

In the U.S. all eyes are on the latest and hottest LTE smartphones, and little notice is given to products serving the rest of the world.  At the high end, this week Nokia is beginning shipments of its Lumia 928 for Verizon in the U.S. and announcing its Lumia 925 for T-Mobile and the rest of the world. The mainstream press is busy comparing them to iPhone5, GalaxyS4 and HTC One, so I'll skip the details on them.

But, with as many as 1.8 billion people forecast to remain connected to GSM networks over the next five years in the developing world, there's another big market to be served. That 2G market segment is one in which Nokia has long held a dominant share, even when its smartphone fortunes took a nosedive…from which it is now slowly recovering.

Nokia has long served the 2G market and it's now made a major product line introduction in order to increase its standing in the developing world. The new sub-$100 Nokia Asha 501 looks like a smartphone and offers many smartphone features, but it runs on GSM and GPRS networks. Sure, there are sub-$70 feature phones on the market, but they don't match the features of the Asha 501.

ht nokia 501 smart phone thg 130509 wblog Nokias Asha 501 Phone Claims 48 Day Battery LifeThe 3-inch QVGA color touch screen provides enough visual excitement even for the slower networks.  And like most smartphones, it offers a camera (3.2MP), USB (2.0), Bluetooth (3.0), Wi-Fi (802.11b/g), FM radio and even a MicroSD memory card slot (4GB card included). And the Asha 501 offers cellular network positioning through Nokia's basic mapping service and provides a faux multitasking interface.

The device also features interchangeable casings, available in a choice of several colors including its striking bright green (my favorite) and bright red colors.  I suspect that it won't be long before knockoff casings become available like the colorful shell feeding frenzy that once served Nokia's early candybar phones about a decade ago.

Nokia has accomplished this feat of providing smartphone features for the developing world by bypassing traditional operating systems, i.e., no Android, Windows or even its own Symbian.  Instead, it employs the 501 is running an OS that Nokia has dubbed the "Asha software platform." The company is cagey about its pedigree, but that OS may be a blend Nokia's Series 40 OS employed in its feature phones and the Mimiria OS that came with Nokia's acquisition last year of Norway-based Smarterphone, a software development company.

Shipments of the Asha 501 will begin next month for subscribers in Africa, India, Indonesia and other developing countries.

Samsung's "5G Radio"

This week, Samsung announced what it terms a breakthrough in wireless transmission speeds through its “adaptive array transceiver” technology that delivers what it calls fifth generation speeds of “up to several hundred times faster” than today’s 4G networks.  The company employed 64 antenna elements transmitting data at 1.06 Gbps at a frequency of 28 GHz for up to 2 kilometers. 

Although the 2 km distance is impressive, the data rate reminds me of the ill-fated UWB (Ultra-BroadBand) radio market.  My count of surviving UWB radio chip houses is zero. Besides, at 28 GHz, precipitation in the form of fog, rain, snow, hail or even grauple (something I've occasionally encountered during backpacking in Arizona and Colorado) severely attenuates the signal, limiting its reach.  Most Satellite TV users have encountered signal fading of their lower-frequency (Ku band: 12-18 GHz) signals during a rainstorm, while the older C band (4-8 GHz) fares better, but nobody but cable company hubs want those huge dishes in their yard.  Oh yes, there's still the 60 GHz radio crowd still getting started, but their focus is on 10m+ transmission distances for in-house TV relays, etc.

Samsung expects to commercialize the new 5G technology by 2020, but color me skeptical.

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As always, I encourage your feedback.

Will Strauss

President & Principal Analyst

Forward Concepts