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GPS uptake in handsets hits roadblocks

Posted: 20 Jan 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:GPS? handset market? GPS cellphone? LBS?

The GPS and location industry faces a second wave of design challenges, which will greatly alter the competitive landscape and the resulting services that can be successfully offered. This is the lesson of IMS Research's report on GPS/Hybrid Location in Cellular handsets.

According to Patrick Connolly, research director, IMS, "Three years ago, the GPS market was all about size, sensitivity and TTFF in an attempt to outspec competitors and win much vaunted cellular handset partnerships. Price was also a big factor, as companies competed for business. The result of this first round of innovation was significant wins for TI, SiRF and Broadcom/Infineon, with Qualcomm continuing to dominate the CDMA space."

The market is now rapidly approaching a second wave of decisions as handset OEMs investigate the best way to support GPS across a range of devices and platforms. These decisions are being made now with a view to the next generation of GPS-enabled handsets.

However, the market has changed significantly in a number of ways that directly affect GPS uptake. The cellular reference design market has been completely overhauled, and smart phone designs now represent huge volume shipments. This has seen GPS shifting down into mid-tier or feature phones. Also, the latest generation of chips are significantly smaller and cheaper thanks to smaller and smaller processing nodes, while new intelligent software algorithms are being used to offer greater performance, power efficiency and accuracy. Plus, Glonass, Galileo and alternative location are on the horizon and in demand from leading OEMS, at the same time that location-based services (LBS) and free navigation have altered requirements on the market.

The result is manufacturers are faced with a number of tough design decisions. There are five main ways to integrate GPS into handsets: standalone chips, combo chips, embedded baseband processor, embedded apps processor and software-based. As if this is not complicated enough, each method presents a second tier of options from which to choose from. As manufacturers cannot offer all options, they need to carefully and quickly choose the best method for high volume shipments.

With Qualcomm poised to snap up business in the W-CDMA and 4G space, and GPS approaching critical mass, embedded baseband processor design looks like a strong candidate for success. With the recent reshuffle of the industry, this option is now limited largely to Infineon, Broadcom, ST Ericsson and MediaTek and could be used as leverage to win new reference design wins. But is the market stable enough to fully embed GPS? Will the additional new business justify the decline in GPS margins? Is this really what OEMs want with so many new innovations in this market?

Standalone GPS chips were a popular choice for the first round of big contract wins, but the jump in performance means that many of the chips currently used in handsets are outdated. Leading manufacturers are now offering chips at lower processing nodes, creating a second shift in size and cost competition. Others are investing in software design to improve performance.

This market has also moved beyond GPS. With Galileo already supported on many chips, Glonass is now becoming a distinct possibility, not to mention other systems such as Compass. Initial trials indicate that there is a significant performance difference between GPS and GNSS chips. Should manufacturers develop a GPS/Glonass chip or should the focus be towards alternative location? Can the additional cost be passed on to the OEM?

The much-hyped GPS combo chips have yet to penetrate the cellular market. Clearly this is an approach that will see success, but to what extent? It is increasingly difficult to choose the correct combination for this market. Furthermore, there is a growing feeling within the industry that customized point product designs are required to meet the needs of individual customers rather than a one-chip-fits-all approach.

The Nokias and Apples of this world need to get GPS and location right the second time around or run the risk of loosing out on LBS a second time. They face similar difficulties in deciding the best approach to support the next generation of applications. LBS is only as good as the underlying location technology.

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