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PC eyes digital home, network processor ready for limelight

Posted: 01 Jan 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:digital family? np? network processor? multimedia? video stream?

The advances in semiconductor process technologies, along with the innovations in microprocessor unit (MPU) architecture, have driven MCUs, DSPs and media processors into various kinds of integrations. These were brought about in part to meet the needs of new products that require both powerful application and high-performance signal processing capability.

Different kinds of embedded processor platforms with integrated communications, computing and multimedia capabilities have emerged. These platforms are leading the development path for the new generation of wireless terminal devices, home and network entertainment systems.

Because of these current trends, integration of communication, computing and consumer entertainment functions of AV into electronic products have become the driving force in the market. As lines in the applications sector blur, the PC industry will need new growth opportunities. As such, the tide of "war in the living room," pertaining to family entertainment, will happen this year.

Media processors hot

The applications of AV processing technologies will go full throttle in the handset design and manufacturing sectors in China. Li Xiaobo, president and CEO of CEC Wireless R&D Ltd, said "There's not much demand in China for high-cost smart phones that integrate all kinds of functions. Instead, mid- to high-end phones targeting different consumer segments will be the trend for Chinese manufacturers in the coming year. The video stream multimedia processing technology will be a hot spot."

Solutions that integrate baseband and application co-processors have drawn attention, but have yet to gain recognition in China. "The integrated solutions will limit the flexibility in choosing the baseband, thus making it impossible to build on top of previous designs. Besides, these solutions have not matured technically and cannot meet the market needs very well. Most likely, they will not reach volume sales this year," said Li.

As converged application processor platforms are used more and more in the wireless design field in China, the future of different operating systems is also worth noting. Li is very upbeat on the application potential of the Linux OS in China and India. Currently, some Chinese handset developers are already porting to Linux. I think that in the future, this OS will take a rather big market share in China," said Li.

Liu Yijun, Asia-Pacific platform manager of the wireless computing and communications group at Intel Corp., agrees that there will be huge demand for video applications in China's handset market this year. "There will be more video features like clip playback and videophone, and carriers will also roll out corresponding services," Liu said.

Network processors (NPUs) also embrace mobile communications as a bright spot. In 2.5G or 3G base stations, NPUs are gaining popularity among equipment manufacturers for tasks such as data conversion and high speed interface protocol processing. Previously, these tasks were mainly handled by ASICs.

Using NPUs will bring several benefits to OEMs. First, OEMs can set more flexible functions for their own system architectures. Second, system maintainability will become more transparent. Zhang Shizhuang, project manager of the supporting platform in ZTE's CDMA group said, "Although the NPU's unit price is higher than that of an ASIC, using NPUs can cut the cost of the whole system because it can increase the integration level of a system and reduce the number of peripheral devices."

Time of life for NPUs

After suffering the downturn and setbacks during the previous years, NPUs are expected to finally see a rewarding season. With the flexibility advantage, NPUs are suitable for applications that require shorter time-to-market and that involve multiple protocols and varying standards.

For NPUs broadband access is expected to be a hot application. As Chinese telecom carriers transform their networks to all-IP setups, the equipment need to convert ATM frames into IP packets. Protocol conversion is one of the strengths of the NPU. In this field, NPUs are increasingly being used in equipment such as DSL access multiplexer - CO equipment for ADSL. ADSL is the fastest-growing broadband access method, and it's believed that the number of ADSL subscribers in China has reached more than 6 million in 2003. "As the number of broadband subscribers and their demand for services continue to increase, the applications of NPU will rapidly expand," said John Du, director of Intel's Communication Technology China Lab.

The multiple service transmission platform (MSTP) is also becoming an emerging application area for NPUs. Since MSTP involves the handling of multiple protocols and multiple data rates, it provides a new opportunity for NPU application. At 2.5Gbps and above, OEMs will consider using NPUs. However, the use of NPUs in this area is small-scale, and some obstacles must be overcome before it can be utilized for large-scale use. "For high-speed applications of 2.5Gbps and above, the NPU's performance will drop noticeably if complicated programming is involved." said Chen Wei, chief SDH & MSTP engineer of ZTE transmission products group. Du admits that this is an issue of trading off between performance and flexibility.

ZTE's Zhang said, "The development of NPU is more difficult than that of devices such as DSPs and FPGAs." Today, designers usually need to use the proprietary microcode from vendors to program NPUs, which requires a deep understanding of the underlying hardware. To solve this problem, manufacturers are working on providing NPU programming methods that are based on high-level languages. According to Du, Intel is conducting a research on how to use C language to program NPUs so that users can program the device without knowing the underlying hardware.

Digital family

The predicted entry of the digital family age at a recent Intel Developers' Forum made it high time for PCs to redefine application models. Louis Burns, general manager and vice general manager of the desktop platform business unit of Intel said, "At present, the maturity of three factors - electronic products digitalization, contents digitalization and the rise of family networks - will be conducive to promoting the realization of the digital family prospect."

He said that for various electronic products, the "cross-over" between analog and digital content is already happening. At the same time, consumers also show great support for digital products. DVD players will continue to see a dramatic growth and the rise of WLAN will guide people toward family networks.

However, to tap into digital family entertainment, Burns said that three basic conditions must be met. First, devices targeted for family networks should be easy to use and must have plug-and-play capability. Second, they must be capable of sharing content with other devices. Finally, they should be able to provide the best user experience and content that a family can enjoy. To achieve this interoperability should be a major point, he stressed.

In June 2003, 17 companies including Intel and Sony established the Digital Home Working Group. Burns pointed out that there is no need for a new technology or standard. What the industry lacks is an interoperability platform that is acceptable. Banking on the influence of DHWG members in the market, new design guidelines will be issued this quarter to accelerate the development of the industry in the digital family arena.

The Media Center PC initiative could also be the first step for manufacturers to try to turn the PC into a home entertainment center. In light of this, Microsoft issued the Windows XP Media Center Edition OS, which offers a simple user interface and features menu selection, browsing and multimedia functions with remote control integrated with the TV tuner and DVD player.

According to market research firm In-Stat/MDR, such PC-TV products that capture TV programs, digitalize and store them in hard disks will boost growth for manufacturers and further generate business opportunities for STBs, PC-TV tuners and related products.

Y.C. Tsai, an analyst at MIC, also pointed out that with the slowdown of the global PC industry, PC manufacturers around the world need to reorient their strategy in consumer electronics to tap deeper into the family entertainment market.

Hank Horng, an executive at Taiwan IBM PC division, said that if the product for the digital home market is simple, manufacturers will generate more profits through mass production. They can develop products with integrated functions and added value, and thus will be able to enjoy higher margins. Innovation, systems integration and highly-diversified products will be major challenges for Taiwan's manufacturers in the future.

- Abbon Yan and Melody Zhao

Electronic Engineering Times - China

* Karen Kou in Taipei and Reden Mateo in Manila contributed for this story.

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