Archive for November, 2009

November 24, 2009

The rise of Qualcomm

I read an article on EETimes this morning about Qualcomm’s new display technology. This is very similar to E-Ink’s display in that it needs no external backlight. If you have had a chance to see any of these displays you will notice how
similar it is to reading a newspaper. Up until now, there was a lot of buzz about Amazon’s Kindle (seen above). However the limitation of this technology was that it could only display black & white. While this is sufficient for reading books, I believe the future still belongs to a web pad that can do more than display static content.
With Qualcomm’s announcement of the miraSol technology it appears colour displays with XGA resolutions, capable of 30fps video are on their way. This can potentially be a game changer.

If there is one silicon vendor that is well poised to take on the might of Intel it would be Qualcomm. They seem to have invested in the right technologies and more importantly seem to have come up with products at the right time.
Qualcomm’s wireless (3G) prowess needs little discussion. However their foray into mobile TV (MediaFlo) appears to be getting a new lease of life after a bad start a few years ago (riding the online video wave). They seem to have cracked the mobile SOC solution with a 1GHz processor capable of rendering Flash 10 content. The Gobi (SDR) 3G broadband solution for notebooks will pay off since it can handle multiple new technologies. And now this – the display.

The display will enable thin & light mobile designs that will stay powered on battery for weeks. Moreover, a 30fps display will reduce the motion artifacts on videos. The lack of a backlight will significantly reduce eye fatigue. All good news for this segment.

With the above solutions Qualcomm seems to be well placed to cover every aspect of a mobile device save the case & keyboard. They have a solution for the processor, wireless access & the display. All of which are cutting edge.

I am a admirer of 3 companies in the semiconductor business – Broadcom, nVidia & Qualcomm. While Broadcom has the  processor and the wireless capabilities to match Qualcomm, I believe Qualcomm with this display technology has an edge. nVidia still has not been able to break away from its graphics niche, but will soon need to, to stay in the race.

Lets see how this plays out in the months to come.

Stay tuned…

November 14, 2009

Geo restrictions on internet TV

Its time content owners woke up to bit-torrent. People are torrenting their way out of Hulu’s restrictions. With tools like Miro and now TVTrigger it makes little sense. I am aware of content syndication deals that make content owners money for overseas rights….but they could make much more money by opening up their content to hundreds of millions of viewers across the globe.
We know that internet video CPMs are much higher. CPMs like $75 and most recently $50 for Wall St. Journal can only mean more money.
I dont get to see most of these shows on HULU and BBC on TV here and that would only imply that the TV networks here dont have content deals for those shows. Hence no money to the content owners. However if I could watch these shows on Hulu the ads would pay the content owners.
Remember that most satellite TV networks have limited bandwidth for content. The carriage fee would not justify the ROI to cater to niche audiences. Hence they wouldn’t bother to do a deal for much of Hulu content in places like India and Russia. However there is a niche audience for these shows there. This is where the power of the internet can be leveraged. Tap the long tail to make your millions!

November 14, 2009

Intel, ARM and the Netbook

I have been gung-ho about the new application areas that the Atom processor managed to penetrate/create – low power, “low cost” and pentium strength processing capability in the embedded domain. Most important was x86 compatibility, which meant I could write code on my regular notebook and instantly deploy it on an Atom device. Smart segmentation of the market by Intel.

Netbooks that are based on the atom processor have undoubtedly been the surprise segment for almost everyone in the industry. Asus needs to be commended for being the first to push this in the market and have been deservedly rewarded. According to Forward Conepts – ” The 3G Netbook category is going to demonstrate 124 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) reaching 34 million units in 2014 and a 45 percent 3G/LTE attachment rate” . There is little doubt (save in Steve Job’s mind) that this is going to be a huge opportunity.

Its not just netbooks but other devices that have begun to use the Atom processor – nettops like the Asus eee box and the Acer Aspire Revo have appeared on the scene. With internet video being the next  frontier there is a glut of devices trying to bring this video from the internet to television. Imagine the speed with which you can now build the app and deploy it on one of these boxes.

ARM devices about a year back were still underpowered and were confined to either smart phones or other embedded tasks. It was not that some of these ARM based SOCs couldn’t decode HD video. In fact many of them could. It was a problem of internet compatibility. The internet has grown on Wintel platforms – websites, browsers and applications were all built to cater to this segment. Adobe’s Flash had also grown to be the platform of choice for graphics and video on the net. When intel launched the atom this was their big differentiator- compatibility with the web. Over 75% of all internet video is built on Flash.

Flash 10 is a MIPS hungry platform and requires OpenGL ES 2.0 and OpenVG 1.1 support. The ARM SOCs were not ready with this support. Intel rode the wave and reaped the benefits of the early mover advantage…with significantly high margins (Intel’s last earnings call pegged margins for 4th quarter this year to be in the high end of the normal range which intel defines as 50-60%). The flip side of this was that Atom based devices were priced much higher than ARM based ones. Many vendors didn’t have a choice and just went with the price or decided to go for sub-optimal implementations based on ARM.

Intel’s honeymoon may soon be over if the ARM based silicon vendors are to be believed. Adobe started the Open Screen Project to work with silicon vendors to port Flash 10 & Adobe’s AIR to their SOCs. This is beginning to come to fruition now with a few players announcing support for Flash.

Marvell, Broadcom, Sigma Designs, Freescale and most recently Qualcomm have announced Flash support. The most significant amongst these announcements seems to be Qualcomm’s see (Qualcomm demos Adobe Flash 10 on ARM-based netbook). Not only do they support full high definition flash but have also upped the processor clock to 1GHz. ARM parts have the big advantage of being very miserly on their power consumption and this can be a significant differentiator in the mobile space. This includes smart phones, netbooks, smart books, tablets and the like.
More importantly companies like Qualcomm have longer standing relationships with operators who are a crucial piece of the value chain when it come to mobile broadband delivery. The fastest way for mobile broadband to grow is to subsidize the device in exchange for guaranteed monthly subscription fees.
Qualcomm announced it is sampling its first chipsets for dual-carrier HSPA+ and multi-mode 3G/LTE recently. According to Qualcomm its smarphone chipset dubbed MSM7x30, supports high-definition video recording and playback, has dedicated 2D and 3D graphics cores and is optimized for Web usage. Qualcomm can hence become a formidable rival to Intel in this next generation of devices that go beyond the PC.

Of course Intel is not going to take this challenge lying down. On June 23rd of this year Nokia and Intel announced a deal where Nokia will license 3G and HSPA technology to Intel (see Intel, Nokia exchange wedding vows). And in October this year there was this announcement – AT&T Nokia booklet 3G pricing & release date confirmed. This netbook is powered by an Atom Z530 and has a 3G modem. Its available for $299 if you sign up for a $60 per month data plan or $599 unsubsidized.

The last chapter in this saga is far from over. Exciting times ahead for this space and it can only be good for the consumer.

As always, stay tuned….