Phone makers copy PCs

With the coming of 3G networks and wireless data services, cell phones aren't going to just resemble PCs. They're going to be PCs.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
With the coming of 3G networks and wireless data services, cell phones aren't going to just function like PCs--they're going to be built like PCs.

Cell phone designers, chipmakers, software developers and others are in the midst of retrofitting the omnipresent cell phone so handhelds can better handle stock quotes, e-mail traffic--even applications for offtrack betting.

And the engineers are lifting many of these concepts and designs straight out of the home computer.

Many future cell phones, for instance, will come with standard computer memory, or DRAM, for rapid data access. Meanwhile, flash memory, used now for data access in phones but slower than DRAM, will function more like a hard drive.

"All of the basic elements of a computer will be in cell phones," said Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst at the Microprocessor Report, adding that one of the beneficiaries could be Intel because its XScale chip runs at much faster speeds than most traditional cell phone processors. XScale chips run as fast as 400MHz, while standard cell phone chips run at 33MHz or 66MHz.

Dual-processor phones will also emerge with two CPUs, sometimes on the same piece of silicon, acting as the brain inside a handheld.

"More and more we are seeing the symmetric multiprocessing approach," said John Rayfield, director of R&D and technical marketing at Cambridge, England-based ARM, which designs chips for cell phones. "Dual-processor cell phones. It's in our (collective) future."

The PC-like design isn't just on the inside. There are "home" and "back" buttons on the first phone built by Audiovox with Microsoft's phone operating system inside.

Borrowing concepts from the PC world is motivated by two goals. First, finicky cell phone consumers will demand quality that compares to what they experience on a connected computer, requiring better and faster silicon to run applications smoothly.

Gartner analyst Rich Mogull says until wireless text messaging reaches critical mass, the adoption of more advanced wireless functions and services will remain a distant dream.

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"DRAM is going to become more pervasive. 3G (third-generation) and 2.5 phones are going to offer more functionality and capability," said Tom Quinn, vice president of marketing at Samsung Electronics.

Second, they have to bring these applications to market without draining the phone battery.

"Rather than one processor running at 600MHz, with two at 300MHz you could drop the volts on the die" and use less energy, Rayfield said. A second processor can also conserve by remaining dormant until needed.

The changes could come soon. The leading phone makers and mobile operating system companies are already working on ways to adjust their technology so that the processors know how to access data from DRAM, Quinn said.

Samsung and other memory makers are also working on ways to fit in these extra chips without increasing phone size. In a nutshell, when a phone is turned on, data stored in flash memory will be mirrored into DRAM. DRAM is faster than flash, so the user will be able to retrieve e-mail or Web information faster if the processor can get it from DRAM.

"It is not really a technical issue. It is really the packaging," Quinn said. Phones from manufacturers should emerge late this year.

Software developers are also devising ways to replicate the PC Internet experience on the small screen. Picsel Technologies, for instance, has created a browser that lets handhelds display complete Web pages and video images. Manufacturers will release phones containing the company's application in the fourth quarter, said Ali Adnan, a customer representative for Picsel. Samsung and NEC are two of the larger companies discussing deals with the company, he added.

Text messaging blues
The changes are to help phones handle new functions other than making a voice call, such as accessing wireless e-mails with sound recordings attached or downloading a movie trailer as you wait in line for tickets at a theater. Wireless carriers hope to sell these services in the future.

Some have already begun offering things like downloading new ring tones. Cingular is selling mini-screen savers for cell phones.

The PC-to-phone movement could also spawn a new wave of brand name companies. The most obvious candidate for household name status is ARM. Chips based around the company's designs are currently in approximately 70 percent of the phones worldwide. The cell phone processors from Texas Instruments, Intel and soon Motorola are based around ARM designs. ARM chips are already used inside Pocket PCs, while the next version of the Palm OS will run on ARM.

Intel is also going to push for an advantage. One secret weapon: The company says it is fairly easy to port existing PC applications to its Xscale processor, based around an ARM core.

"If the cell phone continues to be voice-only, Intel has no base in the cell phone market," Tony Sica, vice president of Intel's Wireless Communications and Computing Group, said in February. "If the industry is successful in providing data services, we will win."