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Qualcomm joins dual-chip phone race

The phone chip maker is the latest to begin reworking the cell phone's basic design to prepare it for the next level of phone services. The concept? Add a second processor.

Qualcomm on Thursday became the latest chipmaker to begin reworking the cell phone's fundamental architecture to prepare it for the next generation of phone services.

Almost all cell phones use a single processor, which serves as the brain. Up until last year, a single chip was enough to handle all of a phone's tasks, whether making a call or downloading a photo message.

But cell phones are now struggling to keep pace with the more technically challenging services being introduced by carriers desperate for new revenue sources--video mail and multiple player 3D games, for instance. Handset makers, hearing the concerns of their carrier customers, have been asking chipmakers to fix the problem.

The answer, coming already from chipmaker Texas Instruments, and now from Qualcomm, is to drop another processor into the phone. One of the specially designed chips is for the phone's typical functions, such as making calls. The other picks up the slack, or is given tasks like downloading music.

This fundamental change in cell phone design is a difficult one for all involved. Handset makers have to find room for more silicon on an already overcrowded cell phone motherboard, where all the electronics are kept. The phones cost more to make, forcing carriers to make up the difference with their customers. But the trade-off is a better operating phone, which will help attract people to the new services, the chipmakers say.

"This addresses the growing consumer demand for higher-performance wireless devices delivering high-quality audio-visual and 2D/3D gaming," said Sanjay Jha, president of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies, "as well as the emerging wireless enterprise data market."

Most handset makers and carriers seem to be on board with the first generations of these new chips. NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese cell phone service provider, sells three of these cell phones. U.K.-based carrier Orange is now selling a dual-processor Sendo phone, its SPV. German handset maker Siemens plans to introduce its dual-processor phone this summer.

All the dual-processor phones on the market now use the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard, on which about 75 percent of the world's phones are based. A representative for Texas Instruments, which began supplying dual-processor phone chips last year, said Nokia, Palm, Panasonic, Sony Ericsson and other phone makers have either introduced new two-chip phones, or are in the process of doing so.

Qualcomm's new MSM7000 chips for dual-processor phones are built around another standard, CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), which is popular in North America, Japan and Korea. The company won't sample its CDMA dual-processor chips until next year, it said. It did not disclose any potential or current customers.