Commentary: Intel is a wireless contender

Intel's "Internet on a chip" announcement makes it a serious contender in the production of microchips for next-generation mobile phones.

By Stanley Bruederle, Gartner Analyst

Intel's "Internet on a chip" announcement makes it a serious contender in the production of microchips for next-generation mobile phones.

See news story:
Intel to unveil its "Internet on a chip"
Intel is not among the leaders today, except for being a major supplier of flash memory in mobile handsets. However, with this announcement, Intel has become virtually the only chipmaker to offer a process that integrates microprocessor, digital signal processor (DSP), analog capabilities and high-complexity flash memory into a single chip. Few companies own all those technologies--let alone are able to incorporate them all in a single manufacturing process.

The context is this: Next-generation mobile communications and computing devices will require lots more processing power than today's devices have. They will need more processors--and more powerful processors--to handle Internet access and multimedia applications as well as conventional uses such as phone calls and messaging. All of those capabilities have to be about the same size and shape as today's slender mobile phones.

Intel has accomplished the difficult task of integrating those elements onto a single disk of silicon. That approach will increase the speed with which data can be transferred from one function to another, and it will decrease manufacturing costs while enabling more complex designs. Intel's competitors will not be able to duplicate its achievement easily. After all, it can take years for a chipmaker to develop a new technology such as flash memory.

However, Intel's chip does not offer the only reasonable approach to putting more processing power in the same space. For example, Texas Instruments, today's leader in supplying mobile baseband solutions, handles three of the four components--microprocessors, DSPs and analog capabilities. Through an agreement with Advanced Micro Devices, TI physically integrates AMD's flash chips into its mobile multimedia solution, called OMAP (Open Multimedia Applications Platform), by a technique called "stacking." With stacking, a handset manufacturer could design a chip stack in which the AMD flash memory sits directly on top of TI's microprocessor/DSP.

Although that approach would likely not offer as much performance as an integrated design like Intel's, stacking gives the manufacturer greater flexibility because it could mount the flash on top of different microprocessor/DSP chips to create different configurations for different handset models.

TI's approach does not seem as elegant as Intel's, but good marketing could make the difference. The real question is not which chipmaker has the best technology and engineering, but which will do a better job of convincing customers that its approach is better.

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