Mobile phone makers hunt for 3G solution

A chip design start-up argues that conventional thinking will not be enough to solve the design problems that beset 3G handsets

Mobile phone makers are being forced to consider radical approaches to microprocessor design to deal with the difficulties of making next-generation handsets, according to a California-based chip start-up.

Quicksilver Technology chairman Chris Wheddon, who headed BT's research and development arm until 1999, said on Monday that the problems facing 3G phone makers are so serious that they will require new ways of thinking about mobile phone processor design. Quicksilver's "adaptive computing" technology, which is enables the chip's architecture to change for different tasks, is considered on par with science fiction by many conventional chipmakers.

Nevertheless Wheddon, speaking at the Next Generation Mobile Handsets conference in London, said it is being considered by major European and Japanese phone manufacturers as a solution to 3G handset design problems such as battery drain and heat output.

Chipmakers such as Texas Instruments and Qualcomm are "stuck in a very linear mindset", Wheddon told ZDNet UK. "They're looking down a tunnel and all they know is, they have to keep running faster and faster. But you can't solve these problems that way." He said that the laws of physics will now allow current chip designs to deliver the portability and processing power needed by next-generation mobile phones.

Most chipmakers are creating ever-smaller and more powerful versions of their traditional wireless processors in order to handle the power-hungry applications demanded for 3G mobile phones, such as videoconferencing. However, there is an industry-wide acknowledgement that current handsets -- mainly available in Japan -- suffer serious drawbacks.

Siegmund Redl, director of marketing for Qualcomm's CDMA technologies division, pointed out that phones running on the FOMA 3G network in Japan typically have 50 hours of standby time, compared with 300 hours for a typical 2G phone.

Wheddon quipped that the "killer app" of the Japanese 3G phones in use on the Isle of Man is that "you can keep your hands warm during a soccer match if you turn it on."

Quicksilver claims its technology can deliver 10 to 50 times the performance of a conventional DSP (digital signal processor) while consuming a fifth of the power. Wheddon said the company has successfully demonstrated its technology in silicon form.

However, many at the conference made no effort to disguise their scepticism for the company's claims. One member of the audience was irked at Quicksilver's refusal to use standard measurements of performance such as MIPS (millions of instructions per second) or MOPS (millions of operations per second). "You don't use MIPS or MOPS? Well I do," he said. "Could you give me some numbers so that I can understand what you're saying?"

Qualcomm also made an appearance at the show, emphasising that it is relying on its own "proven technology", already used in Japanese mobile phones.

Mobile phone makers and network operators are in the process of building the infrastructure to operate 3G services. It is hoped that the higher speeds and data capabilities of 3G phones will bring in higher revenues, which are needed to repay huge 3G infrastructure costs.

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