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Amiga alumni hope to rise above the din

Embedded Wireless Devices taps Amiga philosophy in an attempt to take a bite out of the consumer electronics market.

One company is trying to rise above the din of the Consumer Electronics Show with a new multitasking wireless chip, a new pitch, and backing from a major customer, Panasonic.

Chipmaker Embedded Wireless Devices used the Las Vegas trade show to offer its promise of simplicity: a single chip that supports four wireless communications technologies.

The Pleasanton, Calif.-based chipmaker, which was founded by alumni from cult computer-maker Amiga, announced Monday that Panasonic will use its newest chip, the Valhalla E8000, in a number of future products, including a Bluetooth-enabled cordless phone that will allow consumers to chat and share data with a PC at the same time.

The chip--which combines a 32-bit processor core, a digital signal processor, and several radio frequency base bands, or channels--allows electronics devices such as cordless phones to send and receive wireless voice and data communications.

The 60-person company is targeting its Valhalla E8000 series chips at a number of devices, including Internet appliances and residential gateways for Internet access. What sets the new chip apart, the company says, is its ability to handle multiple wireless protocols, including 802.11, Home RF and Bluetooth, at the same time.

The new chip and the Panasonic design win are important for Embedded Wireless Devices, or EWD for short, because both represent new opportunities for the chipmaker to break out of the cordless phone market and set its teeth into the larger, more general market for consumer electronics devices.

However, the chipmaker hasn't always been part of the Silicon Valley scene or sent its executives jetting off to Vegas.

Instead, the company got its start in Philadelphia and has its roots in the Amiga, the highly touted computer architecture that never found the commercial acceptance its proponents so wholeheartedly thought it deserved.

Amiga computers, which first emerged in 1984, were known for complex graphics and pioneered multitasking, or the ability to do more than one job at a time. And multitasking is what differentiates EWD's chips.

However, EWD is hoping for a different outcome than Amiga, which never found success in the commercial world but still has die-hard fans who swear by Amiga technology to this day.

EWD's defenders of the Amiga way include founders Sean Marzola, who is president and CEO, and Michael Friis, the chief technical officer.

The Commodore connection
Friis, an engineer by trade, had once been a Commodore reseller in Denmark. Marzola ran a company that developed and sold Commodore and Amiga add-ons. Richard Murphy, EWD's first employee and now vice president of marketing, had his own Amiga business as a desktop video hardware reseller.

The three met via the Commodore and Amiga community.

"Commodore was really a common thread that brought this all together," Murphy said.

Friis joined EWD from Dancall, a telephone handset maker working with the digital enhanced cordless telephone standard. EWD was born when its founders saw a potential market for chips supporting the DECT protocol. DECT offers multi-point wireless communications, allowing devices to communicate without wires.

Since its incorporation in 1995, EWD's business has grown to include some 20 device manufacturers, including IBM, General Electric and several Bell brand companies. Its chips are now used in consumer products, such as cordless phones, in addition to the multiple handset business market.

EWD added the Amiga flavor when it decided to offer multi-point wireless over several other protocols in addition to DECT, in effect adding multitasking to its chips.

"We took some of those multitasking concepts from the Amiga," Murphy said.

The multitasking approach of Amiga helped inspire EWD to develop its chip to support multiple communications protocols. A device containing Valhalla E8000 series chips, such as the Panasonic phone, will be able to multitask by switching quickly between DECT, 802.11, Home RF and Bluetooth protocols.

Brains behind multitasking
The company's embedded operating system, called EMOS, is the brains behind the multitasking, directing the switching between the different RF protocols.

In order to be able to switch between protocols, the company's newest chips, Valhalla E8715 and E8720, announced in December, combine a processor core, a digital signal processor, flash memory, and three base bands, which allow the wireless protocol to access a radio frequency transmitter.

The new Valhalla chips are being shipped to customers now and should be available in products in the second quarter of this year. The E8720 version adds support to the Bluetooth wireless protocol.

Panasonic will be one of the first large customers for the E8720 chip. At CES on Monday, Panasonic said it plans to build a reference design for a Bluetooth-enabled cordless phone using E8720.

Murphy says the reference design will lead to a Panasonic-branded cordless phone with Bluetooth support and likely other devices, including a residential gateway. A residential gateway is a device that acts as an access point to the Internet. A residential gateway, whether it's used for business or home, allows multiple computers to share the same Internet connection.

Analysts say EWD has a solid strategy.

"I think it's a viable approach to the market. At issue is how (EWD) is able to position itself as the (wireless) standards roll out," said Stan Bruederle, an analyst with Dataquest in San Jose, Calif.

That makes time EWD's biggest challenge.

"What happens today is that every consumer electronics manufacturer has its own standard for connecting devices together," Bruederle said.

If EWD does not establish itself among consumer electronics device makers before potential competitors such as Philips Electronics or Radiata swoop in, the company could be locked out of the high volume market for consumer devices, he said.

However, EWD sees its multi-protocol approach as insurance against competitors, who might only offer support for one protocol.

"What we offer our customers...is the ability to implement all of these protocols today," Murphy said.

However, he admits, "the trick of navigating this market will be where does it go, and where will the standards come to rest?"

The E8000 chips handle the different protocols by switching between them, instead of using them simultaneously. The switch is made so quickly that it as if the protocols are being used simultaneously, Murphy explained.

The next goal
EWD's goal for its next-generation Valhalla chips, called the E9000 series, is to reduce the number of base bands it needs to support its multiple wireless data communications protocols from three to one.

However, it faces major challenges because the 802.11 standard cannot be used simultaneously with Bluetooth because of differences in the way the technologies operate. Here, EWD plans to take advantage of industry efforts to smooth the incompatibilities between protocols.

The payoff could be huge for EWD, as the consumer electronics market is extremely price-sensitive, and pricing plays a major role in device makers' decisions to select the components they use.

Moving to one chip, one base band, one radio would ensure that EWD could reduce the cost of its chips and therefore increase sales. Additionally, the company could improve performance.

"For (wireless consumer electronics) to truly gets into consumers' hands, it needs to be mass manufactured, and it needs to be cheap," Murphy said.

Valhalla E9000 is planned for the end of this year, he added.

Applying its low-cost approach to a new consumer market, EWD is also developing a reference design for Web-surfing tablets.

The design will "blow Transmeta away," Murphy said. "We'll undercut (Transmeta) by two-thirds in price."

EWD likely would market the design, with its own chips and EMOS OS, to its cadre of consumer electronics customers.

The company says it will make the reference specification public this quarter.

"If eventually consumers could go out and buy a Web pad for $99, that would ensure manufacturers could penetrate the mass market," Murphy said.

Making it big in the mass market is what it's all about for this little chipmaker.