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Will next iPod be a phone?

Posted: 16 Aug 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ipod? cellphone? integration? mp3? dsp?

Everybody agrees that MP3 technology is going to be around for a while due to its success and growth. The question is: in what form factor? Will it remain an independent device, generating millions of dollars for apple and other OEMs? Or will cellphones swallow the MP3 functionality in the same way they swallowed the "just for fun"-use digital camera, leaving little room for standalone MP3 players? Other than the business consequences for MP3 manufacturers, what are the technical hurdles?

In March, the CTIA Wireless conference tried to clarify the road map of where the cellular market was going. It was clear that by next year, cellphones will try to do even more than they can today, including delivering music. Consequently, and as early as 2006, independent MP3 device manufacturers (led today by Apple) might be forced to think differently.

The MP3 integration argument centers on three issues: power consumption (and its counterpart, battery size); overall form factor; and the fact that MP3 players, and Apple iPods specifically, are a marketing phenomenon. People love their iPods too much to replace them with phones. This leads to eager anticipation about Apple's co-development in cellphones.

Several phones already support MP3 playback capabilities, including the Motorola MPx 200, Nokia 6630 and Siemens Sx1. Still, an MP3-capable cellphone is limited in the number of songs that can be stored. However, specific alliances between handset manufacturers and MP3 vendors may address that issue. Motorola has joined forces with Apple and Nokia is working with Loudeye Inc., while Microsoft MSN Music has teamed up with Qualcomm Inc. These coalitions will help the transition to new cellphones with a focus on digital audio playback.

Technical hurdles

Three technologies will have to be further developed to move MP3 capabilities into a cellphone. First, storage capacity needs to be increasedwithin a smaller form factor. There is currently a trade-off between using flash memory technology and microdrives. Flash memory devices are inexpensive, small and consume little power. However, they have limited storage capacity. Although 1GB devices are now readily available, this is still not enough for mass-data storage. Microdrives are great for mass storage, capable of exceeding 40GB. But the power consumption and size are relatively high compared to the rest of the mobile phone. Drives are also made from fragile moving components. That said, the Samsung SPH V5400 includes a microdrive with a 1.5GB capacity.

Power consumption, as mentioned, is a strong limiting factor for converged devices. A third technology that must be further developed is music content downloading via service providers. This would allow customers to access songs without having to be connected to a computer. It would require a cheap, fast solution. To this end, HSDPA, EV-DO and other technologies either are being designed now or are in trials.

Application processors provide one way for OEMs to reduce the overall bill-of-materials and the power consumption of the system. Such devices from companies like Texas Instruments Inc. or Qualcomm are different from those of an MP3 encoder/decoder such as that offered by SigmaTel Inc. Both types are highly focused, but the difference in usage models is pushing implementation of a different set of features to efficiently support the application, with a significant impact on power consumption.

Solutions providers are developing advanced power-saving strategies that involve hardware and software IP. The differences ride on which functionality is integrated on the die, so let's compare two leading architectures: the SigmaTel MP3 decoder and the TI Omap2420 application processor family. SigmaTel elected to integrate a full DC/DC converter on-chip, thus reducing the overall bill-of-materials of an MP3 system. This is an interesting approach and not an easy one, considering that the same device also integrates all the audio codec functionality on board. On the other hand, TI's Omap2420 relies on an external power-management chip. This approach makes sense, since a cellphone is a more complex product than an MP3 player, having additional features that require more stringent power control.

At first glance, it seems as if an Omap2420 or a Qualcomm MSM65xx processor would be able to do the job of the SigmaTel STMP3520B, requiring only minor changes and reuse of their powerful, integrated DSPs. In practice, they would be able to accomplish this, but the application specifications carry a cost not associated with the final application. For example, the SigmaTel IC is designed to support a large set of flash memory, while the TI or Qualcomm parts would support a more reduced set of storage solutions. SigmaTel also supports more audio interfaces. TI and Qualcomm do not have to; there is not enough demand to justify the integration of those features in a handset.

Application processors carry DSPs dedicated to specific mobile-phone-type applications not required in an MP3 player. It is also important to note the common set of features in all the entries, such as the LCD controllers, USB interfaces, and serial and parallel interfaces.

This quick comparison highlights an even more important trend. It is not only MP3 music applications that are going to be swallowed by that handset, but it is the entire multimedia platform, including video. Due to power consumption issues, it is unlikely that we will see all of those applications working concurrently. But independently enabled, they might lead to new types of cellphone products, including video and gaming.

Who can best integrate MP3?

The overlap raises questions about who is in the best position to integrate MP3 functionality in a cellphone from an application controller point of view. TI, Qualcomm and SigmaTel know their customers' requirements very well. The real issue is to understand the user model. Do consumers want a cellphone with MP3 capabilities or an MP3 player with cellphone capabilities?

TI recently announced a single-chip GSM/GPRS solution to leverage low-cost mobile-phone solutions. MP3 player manufacturers may see this and similar devices as an opportunity to develop their own MP3 phones. This would resolve a lot of other issues with regard to digital rights management (DRM) and audio quality, areas in which the MP3 player manufacturers have solutions and expertise. Synchronization and ease of use will also be major contributors, while DRM will unlock the portable media market.

- Cedric Paillard

TECHinsights Director

Semiconductor Insights

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