TI chief: Keep it simple

Mobile device makers should exploit multimedia for added features - but not too much, says Texas Instruments' chief executive. It's all about access to data
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor and  Michael Kanellos, Contributor

Texas Instruments has a philosophy when it comes to the wireless world: Keep it simple.

On Monday, the company's top executive said companies that make cell phones and other wireless devices should take advantage of the ability to add multimedia, such as video. But don't take it too far, he said.

Achieving the balance between communications and computing power is easy, chief executive Tom Engibous said. Just remember, he said, "wireless will be a communications medium, not a computing platform."

It's about access to data -- whatever that data might be. "The mobile Internet is not designed to duplicate the PC. It is designed to enhance the Internet with a new experience," Engibous said during a speech at a JP Morgan H&Q investor conference in San Francisco on Monday. "Voice will go from being the wireless application to one of many applications."

TI builds a wide range of digital signal processors (DSPs), the chips used behind the scenes to help refine signals, such as voice, for cell phones, handheld computers, digital-audio players and other devices.

TI's latest DSP chips will ship shortly in new handsets from Nokia, Ericsson and Sony, Engibous said. The new chips are part of TI's Open Multimedia Applications Protocol (OMAP), which is for chips and software that can support multimedia. The latest OMAP chip, for example, combines an ARM9 processor core for running applications with a TI C55x-series DSP core for handling communications.

There's still a large amount of uncertainty as to which applications consumers will use on their wireless devices, hence Engibous' suggestion to concentrate on the connection.

"Many of us are convinced that the mobile Internet will be big, but few can predict exactly where it will go and what applications will be valued most by customers," he said.

Analysts agree that it's still unclear how next-generation phones and handhelds with applications such as streaming video will become moneymakers for wireless carriers.

"The real question from the operators is, 'How do we make money over and above the cutthroat voice business,'" said Will Strauss, president of market researcher Forward Concepts. "No one really has a clue."

Although he doesn't believe that people will watch the evening news on their cell phones, Strauss expects that streaming video will offer specialized uses such as allowing people to preview a home for sale as they drive by.

This is one of the reasons TI is investing in software development for OMAP. Software developers could well be sitting on the next killer application for wireless.

Still, Engibous emphasised, "these new terminals will be communications-centric, rather than compute-centric."

Engibous was referring to competitors such as Intel who, he would argue, are focused somewhat more on processing power than on DSP performance.

TI, by contrast, asserts that speed and reliability are more important because consumers will want to view data, such as email or a video, as opposed to using their devices like a PC to crunch numbers on a miniature spreadsheet.

To that end, TI is working with Microsoft, Palm and Symbian to ensure proper operating system support of its hardware.

At the same time, the company is working with RealNetworks and other software developers to create applications and boost security for OMAP-based phones. TI has an agreement with RealNetworks to embed streaming audio and video into OMAP phones. The company is also working with biometric security providers and other software developers to encourage them to create applications for OMAP phones. In addition, TI has set up a $100m OMAP software development fund.

Promoting the use of multimedia for next-generation phones is key to TI in more ways than one. The company, which laid off 2,500 employees after its first-quarter earnings announcement in mid-April, will need DSP sales to help bolster its flagging semiconductor business.

TI's DSP market share has actually dropped a bit. But when next-generation phones and handhelds do catch on, TI still stands to gain. The company supplies about 59 percent of the DSPs used in cell phones. "Whatever cell phone recovery there is, (TI) will provide most of those chips," Strauss said.

The company turns out DSPs for numerous devices, such as digital cameras, and is broadening its horizons for them as well. The company is going full-steam ahead on complementary technologies and devices for home networking, too. To that end, TI announced on Monday a pair of new DSP chips.

The first, TI's new TMS320C5502 DSP, aims to offer energy efficiency and a low price for devices ranging from Internet appliances to digital cameras and video cameras. The chips will cost less than $10 each when purchased in large quantities and will include such items as support for USB (universal serial bus, a connection technology). The company plans to send samples of the chip in the first quarter of 2002 and ship the chips in the third quarter of 2002.

The second, TI's TMS320C5509 DSP, integrates a number of features, including memory, USB and built-in support for storage technologies such as Sony's Memory Stick. The 144MHz chip is aimed at handheld devices that connect to PCs and the Internet. Samples of the chip will be available in June. The first shipments of the chip, priced at $18 in large quantities, are set for the first quarter of 2002.

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