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Intel pushing its own blueprint for wireless devices

The company has used its influence to guide technical development of personal computers, and now it's trying the same thing with cell phones and handhelds.

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
3 min read
Intel has used its influence to guide technical development of personal computers in the past, and now it's trying the same thing with cell phones and handhelds.

Meta Group says Intel has strong technology for handheld computers in its StrongARM chip, but until recently it has ignored the potential of this fast-developing market. Now it seems to be waking up.

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The chipmaking giant unveiled a technical standards effort for building wireless Internet devices at its developer forum in Tokyo today. Called the Personal Internet Client Architecture, the document essentially provides hardware manufacturers and software developers with blueprints for building wireless Web pads, for example, or for tweaking an operating system or application for a pad built around the specifications.

Who wants a new technical standard? In this case, Intel does. Last year, the company set out on a course to diversify its businesses and provide silicon for a wider variety of devices, including set-top boxes, cell phones and handheld computers. Creating a standard provides the company with a tactical hook to recruit smaller manufacturers and others to adopt its technology.

By adhering to the blueprint, a smaller manufacturer can cut substantial amounts of time and money in the development process. Most large manufacturers already have established architectural plans. Some involve Intel chips, but many don't.

"At a minimum, it can influence things in their direction," said one analyst who requested anonymity. The analyst added that Intel has had "its hits and misses" in promoting standards.

Central to the proposal is Intel's XScale processor, which was known, until recently, as the StrongARM. StrongARM chips, based on a chip design that came originally from England's ARM, generally provide high performance while consuming little battery power. Hewlett-Packard, among others, uses StrongARM chips in handhelds.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel is also a major manufacturer of flash memory and baseband chips, two other key components inside portable devices.

"Today's application development environment for wireless devices is a serial and slow process," Ron Smith, general manager of the Wireless Communications and Computing group, said in a statement. "To help keep pace with the advent of next-generation wireless devices, hardware and software must be allowed to develop in parallel. The Intel Personal Internet Client Architecture has been designed with this objective in mind."

Texas Instruments appears to be one of the rivals Intel hopes to begin to undercut with this effort. TI is the largest manufacturer of digital signal processors (DSPs), a key chip in wireless devices that hone cellular signals.

Sources close to Intel said that in today's presentation, the company was planning on intimating that DSPs aren't capable of handling the intense demands of streaming audio, video or other data that devices will need to handle.

Executives at TI strongly disagreed with such an assertion.

"A DSP is required for video and audio," said Bob Carl, general manager of TI's wireless computing division. "They just don't seem to get it."

Carl also pointed out that TI has its own cell phone architecture on the market, called the Open Multimedia Application Platform, that is meeting with sizeable success. The centerpiece of the architecture is a single chip that combines an ARM microprocessor core and a TI DSP. Nokia, Ericsson and Sony have all publicly committed to using TI's product in their phones, Carl added.

Intel as yet does not have its own DSP. In fact, Intel actually markets one of TI's products. DSPC, a company purchased by Intel late last year, resells a TI chip as part of one of its cell phone packages.

Historically, Intel has had its victories and losses with standards. In the last decade, it tried to promote a soft audio standard called Native Signal Processing. It failed, partly because of Microsoft's antagonism to it, according to documents unearthed in the federal government's antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft. Promoting Rambus as a standard for high-speed memory has met with mixed results.

On the other hand, a number of PC technologies, such as Intel's Advanced Graphics Port, have become fairly universal.