eNewsletter – 10/27/2016

Qualcomm Announces 1st 5G Modem. Now What? Last week at its 4G conference in Hong Kong, Qualcomm announced the first fifth generation cellular modem, the Snapdragon X50. Accompanying the modem are the SDR051 RF transceivers and PMX50 power management chip. Qualcomm was quick to point out that it was working with Verizon and others to prove in the device, since there is currently no deployed 5G network over which it can operate. Qualcomm indicated that the device should be available in cellphones in 2018, so you can keep your credit card in your pocket for now. The X50 is designed to initially work only in the 28GHz millimeter-wave spectrum (supporting the Verizon 5GTF and KT 5G-SIG specifications), it’s capable of 8x100MHz carrier aggregation, giving it access to 800MHz of spectrum versus 80MHz (4x20MHz) for Qualcomm’s X16 LTE modem. All this extra bandwidth enables up to 5Gbps on the downlink, opening new applications that were not practical at lower speeds. PCMag.com has a compelling narrative on the X50 here. Here’s Qualcomm’s infographic of the X50. Apple’s iPhone 7 Available with Qualcomm or Intel Modems. Should I worry? It’s well known by now that iPhone7s come in two versions. In the U.S., Intel’s LTE modem is employed in units sold through AT&T and T-Mobile, while the Qualcomm LTE modem is sold through Verizon, Sprint and other carriers requiring CDMA in addition to LTE, etc. There are on-line articles indicating that the Qualcomm modem has superior over-the-air performance. Cellular Insights bench testing indicates that Qualcomm modems outran Intel modems by 30% in overall performance, and 75% when the signal was as its weakest. Moreover, the Qualcomm-based iPhone7s also support TD-SCDMA, popular in China. Here are CI’s iPhone 7 findings. If you want a true “World iPhone 7” your best bet is to purchase (directly from Apple) an unlocked unit with the Qualcomm modem (Look for Models A1660 or A1661 on the back of the iPhone 7). I’m sure that real-world over-the-air experiences comparing the two iPhone7 versions will soon be appearing in cyberspace, but the average iPhone7 customer probably won’t be able to tell the difference. With Qualcomm’s introduction of the 1st 5G Modem (above), it should be clear that the company’s more extensive experience in cellular technology is paying off in superior 4G performance. However, now that it has demonstrated market viability, Intel is committed to doing better when the iPhone8...

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eNewsletter – 9/30/2016

Wireless/DSP Newsletter by Will Strauss Qualcomm to Acquire NXP Semiconductors? Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Qualcomm is in talks to acquire NXP Semiconductors. It is obvious that Qualcomm is seeking to expand into markets beyond cellphones and there has been speculation about what acquisition would make sense for the San Diego-based company. Eindhoven-based NXP would be an appropriate target because it has a very broad product portfolio which could broaden Qualcomm’s market coverage. For example, it would expand Qualcomm’s automotive market by moving from its current dashboard play to engine and body control as well. And NXP became the number one chip supplier to the automotive market after its Freescale acquisition. That Freescale acquisition also brought to NXP a significant microcontroller portfolio and wireless infrastructure DSPs, including small-cell base station chips necessary for the 5G cellular infrastructure market. Qualcomm has a market value of about $95 billion and NXP’s market value is about $32 billion. The deal could close within the next two or three months, but the outcome is by no means certain. CEVA intros 5th Gen DSP Imaging & Vision Technology CEVA has introduced a new DSP-based offering bringing deep learning and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to low-powered embedded systems. Centered around a new imaging and vision DSP, the CEVA-XM6, the company provides a scalable integrated hardware and software platform to allow developers to harness the power of neural networks and machine vision for smartphones, autonomous vehicles, surveillance, robots, drones and other camera-enabled smart devices. By providing a new vector processor and scalar unit, substantial instruction set enhancements, improved memory bandwidth and direct memory access (DMA), the new XM6 is said to provide up to 8x higher performance for neural network workloads and up to 3x performance improvement across all computer kernels compared to the earlier CEVA-XM4. LeEco: Apple-sized Ambitions LeEco…”is a company with Apple-sized ambitions had a coming out party of sorts at the CTIA Wireless show in Las Vegas. This company recently: acquired Vizio for $2 billion; opened up an 80,000 square foot office in Silicon Valley; spent $250 million to buy land in Santa Clara from Yahoo, which can house up to 12,000 employees; hired top talent from Samsung, Qualcomm, Ferrari, and Paramount; and has acquired a controlling stake in Coolpad, the world’s 6th largest mobile phone manufacturer.” That’s an excerpt from my colleague Mark Lowenstein’s latest newsletter, which I believe you...

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eNewsletter – 8/29/2016

Intel wants TSMC’s Apple Foundry Business Intel stated earlier that it wants to expand its foundry business, making chips for others. According to Nikkei Asian Review, Intel’s ambition is to convince Apple to engage Intel to fab its future-generation of A-series application processors. Apple’s current A-series chip business for iPhones is divided between TSMC and Samsung. It’s likely that Apple will be shipping some Intel LTE modem chips in the upcoming iPhone7 fabricated by TSMC. That’s a socket that will be shared with Qualcomm’s LTE modem chips. But Apple’s A-series chips for the iPhone 7 will probably be shipping from TSMC (and perhaps also from Samsung), with no involvement by Intel. On August 16, Intel announced that it will license technology from ARM, enabling it to secure more smartphone business. Intel is involved in some foundry business with Chinese mobile chip house Spreadtrum Communications. But, we believe that’s for chips based on X86 technology. Intel has a 20% stake in Spreadtrum. Intel also announced that LG Electronics as its first smartphone company to adopt (un-named) Intel chips following the ARM deal (of course, that could be for Intel’s existing LTE modem chip). To secure Apple business, Intel will have to offer a low-power CMOS capability compatible with ARM’s process recipe which Intel has not yet implemented. Intel’s current fabs are all designed for “max smoke,” not the 10nm low-power CMOS that Apple will require in a couple of years. So, Intel has the choice of converting an existing state-of-the-art fab (and losing its current PC chip capability) or finally equipping its latest, but now-empty, fab in Chandler Arizona. If it chooses the latter approach, Intel better hurry to get a mature process up and running there by 2019. For a paltry $1 billion, the new fab could probably be partially equipped and up and running by then. And for that equipping to make economic sense, Intel needs a big customer commitment. An Internet of Things sensor? A long-time colleague of mine who is now with DARPA asked me “Is there an Internet of Things (IoT) sensor?” I answered that I only knew of sensor hub chips, such as by ST, etc. Then I began to think, “Is there such a thing as an IoT-specific chip or chip set.” I can only think of LTE Cat Mx modems and MCUs glued together with software for IoT tasks. Qualcomm may have...

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eNewsletter – 5/20/2016

Intel’s IoT products: A Rose by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet  When the term IoT (Internet of Things) came into vogue a year or two ago, chip companies raced to rename many products in their existing portfolio as IoT devices.  Intel was no exception. Intel’s rapid growth in its IoT product line has befuddled many. What IoT products does Intel actually make?  Well, the company’s IoT division was previously known as the “Embedded Products Division.” The rapid revenue growth was really based on renaming the existing division. Intel’s embedded products started out many years ago as “any Pentium-based product that didn’t go into a PC.” But now, my guess is that Intel’s IoT products are customer-defined ASICs and pre-defined modules enabling customer-specific designs, based on X86/Atom cores and sensors. Intel’s 2nd Entry to the Cellphone Business My last newsletter briefly told the history of Intel’s first ill-fated first entry into the cellphone chip business. Now, I’ll discuss Intel’s latest thrust (is that the proper word?) into that business. One should also note that about 10 years ago, Intel turned down a proposal from Apple to supply chips for what was to become the iPhone.  After all, at that time Intel was already supplying chips for Apple’s MAC products.  But, Intel management under Paul Otellini decided that it didn’t make economic sense, since the iPhone was not yet introduced and Apple set a price that Otellini said was below their forecasted cost.  Of course, Intel didn’t understand the volume implications that would drastically lower future costs. So, let’s step forward a few years: Intel’s second entry in the cellphone business began in August, 2010, when it acquired the wireless assets of Infineon Corp. for $1.4 billion. Infineon’s wireless business was booming, after all, its 2G/3G modems, based on CEVA DSP cores, were in all of Apple’s early iPhones. Perhaps in anticipation to the purchase of its wireless assets by Intel, a couple of months earlier Infineon purchased a small LTE modem startup in Dresden, Germany named Blue Wonder Communications (named for a famous blue bridge near Dresden). Blue Wonder had been developing an LTE-only modem based on Tensilica MCU cores (several implemented as DSPs). The Infineon (and later Intel) plan was to bond the acquired Tensilica-based LTE modem on to the CEVA-based 2G/3G modem. That was not easy, since it took another three years to produce a working...

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eNewsletter – 4/22/16

Intel Woes: Can it Right the Wireless Ship? Last month’s newsletter began with the lament by the late Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel.  His biggest regret that he was never able to get Intel to be significant in communication chips. Judging from the recent wireless executive departures, Andy’s regret remains in place. Also, in last month’s newsletter I mentioned that at Mobile World Congress, emphasis was clearly on its infrastructure product line (read: data centers & C-RAN) and IoT rather than cellphones. With Intel’s recent news release on layoffs and future emphasis on data centers and IoT, the tea leaves were clear. However, I believe that Intel is likely to continue in the cellphone chip business, even though their success to date has been lacking. It actually has some architectural strengths that have not been adequately stressed. For example, Intel was probably the first cellphone chip house to implement MIPI’s LLI (Low Latency Interface). This is an important distinction vs. Qualcomm’s early superiority over competitors due to being able ship an all-in-one single-chip baseband-processor. Intel’s first LLI appeared in its XMM7260 modem used inside of the Samsung Galaxy Alpha smartphone, and was able to eliminate the additional memory module which reduced both component cost and power consumption.  If Intel is ever able to get into an Apple cellphone socket, this may be one reason why. Intel desperately needs a major cellphone customer, and Apple is likely the only one that can quickly improve its poor market share of the LTE baseband chip market. As evident in the chart, Intel’s current market penetration is sorely lacking, since their LTE baseband market share last year was on a par with Chinese company Leadcore. History: Intel’s First Foray into Cellphone Chips It was under CEO Dr. Craig Barratt in 1999 that Intel bragged that “it had become a communications powerhouse” with two acquisitions: Level One Communications ($2.3 Billion), which was a major supplier of DSL chips and Israel-based DSP Communications, Inc. ($1.7 Billion) a major supplier of cellphone modem chips. Like many of its acquisitions, Level One was absorbed into Intel and after a few years eventually disappeared. In 1999, DSP Communications Inc. was the #2 CDMA merchant market modem chip manufacturer (after Qualcomm).  DSPC also had a major market share of the Japanese TDMA cellphone modem market (around 35%, if memory serves), and was also selling in quantity to a...

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eNewsletter – 3/22/2016

Andy Grove: Co-Founder of Intel Dies Dr. Andrew S. Grove died yesterday.  He was the co-founder of Intel Corp., along with Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce.  Andy, as everybody knew him, was very approachable, even when he was CEO of the world’s largest semiconductor company.  I didn’t know Andy well, but we did have a number of conversations, including his regret that he was never able to get Intel to be significant in communication chips.  Maybe his wish will finally be realized under current Intel management. Probably his best technical treatise, “Physics and Technology of Semiconductor Devices” is a classic and has long been my bible on semiconductor processes. I once taught semiconductor processing professionally, and the book was extremely helpful to me. Andy was a giant among giants.  He will be missed. MWC Revisited  This year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was bigger than ever, and with better transportation through the new L9 Metro line going (almost) directly to the Gran Fira congress location. Weather was good the entire time and neither raingear nor heavy jackets were necessary. Clearly IoT was a growing theme by many exhibitors at MWC, with both Intel and Qualcomm providing demonstrations and analyst presentations. Intel has recently more than doubled its Chandler, Arizona IoT group to more than 500 people, supporting the product line’s IoT-centric chips, mostly fabricated in Israel. Intel was clearly emphasizing its infrastructure product line at MWC, supporting data centers and C-RAN trials.  The company demonstrated that they were employing its newly-acquired Altera FPGAs in wireless data equipment…for FFT/IFFT and RF/antenna interface functions…while performing all other Level 1 DSP functions through multiple Xeon processors. Although Intel showed LTE chip allegiance to implementing 3GPP Release 13 functions (like LAA), my overall impression was that LTE modems were not a major emphasis in Barcelona. Qualcomm, on the other hand, was pushing their new Snapdragon 820, with most high-end smartphone vendors around the show demonstrating the 820 in their products. The 820 employ’s Qualcomm’s x12 modem for Cat 12 LTE performance. Noted at the show were Samsung’s new 820-based flagship handsets for the U.S. Market, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. LG introduced the modular G5, which will be powered by Qualcomm’s chip around the world. And Sony introduced their Xperia X Performance smartphone and Xiaomi’s Mi 5 and HP’s Elite x3 all running on the Snapdragon 820 chipset. But there were a...

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