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iPod IC drama: Our story continues

Posted: 01 Sep 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:iPod? Apple Computer? iPod Nano? American Technology Research? PortalPlayer?

Apple Computer Inc. shipped more than 8.1 million iPods in its fiscal Q3, the company reported in July. Although Apple hasn't announced new iPod models in more than a year and its shipment schedule for announced variants is slipping, it's clear that the company's dominance of the portable music player market continues.

What's unclear is how the plot unfolds from here.

Apple appears to shuffle chip vendors at will for its iPod platforms: One analyst reported in July that Nvidia had won a slot in the next iPod with Video, knocking Broadcom out of the running. Beyond who's designed out and who's designed in, however, chip industry players and market watchers are asking whether Apple can maintain its momentum and ensure smooth transitions.

According to a report by American Technology Research Inc. analyst Shaw Wu, the iPod Nano, which had been expected to debut this quarter, probably won't appear until the fourth, while the widescreen iPod with Video may not roll until sometime in next year's first half.

But Craig Berger, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities Inc., believes Apple's new video iPod will be available by the 2006 holiday season.

"Steve Jobs will not let Apple's competitors close the gap by missing that window," Berger said last week.

For those tracking the melodrama of Apple's chip moves for the iPod, here's the plot thus far.

PortalPlayer Inc. shocked iPod watchers in April when it announced its media processor had lost its bid for placement in Apple's next-generation iPod Nano. South Korean giant Samsung quickly stepped in to say it had won that socket.

Jon Kang, senior VP for the technical-marketing group at Samsung Semiconductor Inc., revealed the design win during a presentation at the SEMI Strategic Business Conference on April 26.

Nvidia Corp. has apparently scored a critical design winat Broadcom Corp.'s expensein Apple's next-generation iPod with Video, Technology Research Inc. analyst Satya Chillara wrote in a report issued in July.

Apple's current video iPod line is said to use an MP3 processor from PortalPlayer and a multimedia chip from Broadcom. The chip designs for the next-generation video iPod have been up for grabs. What remains unclear is whether the next-gen video iPod will be a one- or a two-chip solution.

If the latter, PortalPlayer may still have a role. In May, Wedbush Morgan's Berger said he was confident that PortalPlayer would "retain its socket in the soon-to-be-released video iPod, given Apple's design constraints."

Berger is standing by that assessment. His own technical analysis has led him to conclude that neither Broadcom nor Nvidia will be ready in less than a year with a one-chip solution that integrates the MP3 and application processor functions.

The PortalPlayer processor that controls the current video iPod and runs the user interface "has more than a million lines of code," Berger said. If the processor's functions were to be integrated into a new chip, he said, that code would need to be "rewritten, checked, validated, beta tested and prototyped. It must be very robust."

Of course, if Apple decides to postpone the next-gen video iPod launch until next year, "all bets are off," Berger said. But he doesn't see that happening.

After a "gaffe" by an executive from Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd who jumped the gun on announcing the company's iPod design wins, Apple reportedly "punished" the semiconductor giant by maintaining its MP3 chip alliance with SigmaTel Inc., according to Wedbush Morgan's Berger.

Despite signs that Samsung would grab a wide swath of the iPod chip business, struggling SigmaTel managed to hold on to its key chip design within Apple's iPod Shuffle, Berger said in late May.

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times
Additional reporting by Junko Yoshida

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