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Silicon Image designs 'connectivity co-processor' for smarter TVs

Posted: 27 Jan 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:connectivity co-processor for TV? serial connectivity? connectivity technologies?

Silicon Image is returning to its roots, finding its way back to where it truly belongs. Now led by Camillo Martino, the company is retracing its steps to concentrate on its core competency: serial connectivity.

In parallel, the Sunnyvale, California-based firm is also planning to introduce to TV architecture what it calls "a connectivity co-processor, something akin to the southbridge on a PC motherboard," according to Martino. Martino became Silicon Image's CEO a year ago, after Steve Tirado abruptly resigned in September 2009.

In a recent EE Times interview at the Consumer Electronics Show, Martino acknowledged that, "Looking back, I think we [Silicon Image] were trying to become somebody that we are not."

He added: "During 2007 and 2009, we took our eyes off our core business�connectivity. We were making a secondary type of decisions in that area."

Under Martino, gone are Silicon Image's previous flagship efforts known as LiquidHD (originally unveiled at CES in 2009 with much fanfare).

Brand-new projects at Silicon Image, since Martino's arrival, include an initiative around a "connectivity co-processor."

Silicon Image had developed LiquidHD, an IP-based home networking solution consisting of a suite of protocols and a new partitioning of functionality for devices. Its goal was to sort out the thorny interoperability issue of digital content distribution at home, a project clearly too big for Silicon Image's capabilities. Today, the web site (http://www.liquidhd.com/), originally developed for the LiquidHD Adopter Program, no longer functions.

In contrast, Silicon Image's connectivity co-processor is focused on meeting the desire of many TV manufacturers who want to transform today's "not-so-intelligent TVs to smart TVs," Martino explained. For that, connectivity will become a key building block.

As a growing number of connectivity standards (which are both numerous and in a constant state of evolution) are popping up on the CE device market, "it is a real challenge for most SoC vendors to keep up," said Martino. "Unless you are one of those companies like Broadcom, MediaTek or Mstar, enabling every new connectivity capability in your SoC is too big an investment to make."

How exactly does Silicon Image try to define a "connectivity co-processor"?

Calling the connectivity co-processor conceptually close to the southbridge on a PC motherboard, Martino explained that there is a demand for a co-processor that can flexibly address the elusive nature of constantly changing connectivity technologies.

Connectivity blocks relevant to CE devices, in Martino's mind, include everything from HDMI, MHL, Ethernet, USB to Bluetooth and a host of other wireless standards.

Decoupling connectivity elements from an SoC could also create a level playing field for chip vendors and OEMs, many of whom are Silicon Image's customers. If one could integrate a connectivity co-processor that addresses multiple connectivity standards, "this will only drive more standards-based wireless and wired connectivity," said Martino.

Does this mean that Silicon Image hopes to become the ultimate arbitrator of standards for connectivity co-processors?

No, said Martino. "We don't have any hidden agenda here. We want to be a Switzerland [in the connectivity debate]."

Broadcom: 'Why choose?'
But of course, if you are Broadcom? whose holy grail is "integration, integration and integration"�Switzerland is off the map. Scott McGregor, Broadcom's CEO, noted during an interview with EE Times at CES, "If you already have all the connectivity elements [like we do at Broadcom], why choose?"

He explained that [connectivity] combo chips are already on the rise. "There are real advantages in combining and integrating different technologies in one chip. We can offer power advantages, space savings and simplify designs." But the bottom line is that OEMs don't have to deal with several different suppliers to bring together a system.

"It's the just one-less-butt-to-kick principle," said McGregor.

For its part, Silicon Image believes a connectivity co-processor could open the door for much more SoC competition on the consumer market for OEMs.

Aside from pushing HDMI and MHL, which are becoming the mainstay of serial connectivity, "We'd like to offer a solution to SoC vendors whose chips are becoming quickly obsolete because the rate of changes in connectivity technologies is moving much faster than their SoC development cycle," explained Martino.

Asked what other connectivity standards (other than HDMI, MHL and Ethernet) will be supported in the connectivity co-processor, Silicon Image is holding its cards close to the vest. "We are currently talking to a lot of top TV manufacturers," he said. The company's co-processors will not affect Silicon Image's bottom line until 2013 or later, he added. Silicon Image is scheduled to sample the first connectivity co-processor in the next nine to 12 months.

It remains to be seen how Silicon Image plans to corral a variety of connectivity IPs for this project. "Internal development, licensing IPs and buying some IPs�all the options are on the table," said Martino.

Martino, originally from Australia, spent the beginning of his career at National Semiconductor, working in Australia, Japan, China and California. Most recently, before joining Silicon Image, Martino was a board member, COO and angel investor at SAI Technology, Inc., a supplier of 4G and security technology solutions to the mobile industry. Martino isn't exactly foreign to the CE market, either. He was COO at Zoran for four years in the early part of the last decade. After leaving Zoran, he served as president and CEO at Cornice, a consumer storage solution company.

- Junko Yoshida
EE Times





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