TI's vision for the Internet era

Texas Instruments executive Alain Mutricy talks about technology standards for cellular phones and the challenges involved in making the transition from 2.5G to 3G networks.

Three years ago, Texas Instruments concluded that the day was not far off when faster cellular networks would let people use their cell phones for a variety of new tasks, ranging from sending digital photos and short video clips to finding directions.

But the new strategy would require additional processing power to augment TI's existing digital signal processor and cellular phone chipsets.

The company set to work on creating a processor/DSP chip that could support the new applications. Silicon wasn't the only thing needed to support new uses. At the same time, the strategy would require the support of application makers and operating system developers to become the universal cellular phone technology that TI hoped to create.

Fast-forward three years. Despite an unforeseen downturn in the semiconductor and communications market, TI executives believe the company is close to achieving its goal of a ubiquitous technology for cellular phones. TI has received support from Microsoft, Symbian, Nokia, Ericsson and Sony.

Alain Mutricy, TI's 37-year-old general manager overseeing the program, is the executive charged with driving the Open Multimedia Applications Platform, or OMAP, to become an industry standard. The French native talked with CNET News.com about where the technology is heading and the challenges involved in making the transition from 2.5G to 3G networks.

Q: What is OMAP, and why should computer users be interested?
A: OMAP is a microprocessing engine that will enable your communications device, your cell phone, to process data and multimedia applications without compromising the battery life. OMAP is the engine that is going to bring a new dimension in communications.

And by dimension, you mean what?
Today the communications devices are really voice-centric. Moving to the next generation, the pipe of communications will get bigger, and that will bring more data to the communications device...Imagine you are traveling on business and capture an image of where you are and then send it to your family. Or you can view on your communications device an image coming from your home. Eventually, you'll watch a 10-second video clip from home, like watch your 10-month-old daughter take her first steps. That's the revolution for people.

How will it work?
One of the keys is that this is a communications device, so it needs to process real-time communications in a very efficient way. Therefore, it needs digital signal processing technology. OMAP is an open platform for which people can write applications. But it also leverages the DSP technology of TI, so it can leverage the applications I mentioned earlier. I think that there's a lot of confusion out there. It's not a PC--it's a phone. It can do a lot of new functions, but I don't think it replaces a PC. It is definitely a communications device. The big difference between the phone usage and the PC usage is what the consumer wants is instant, real time.

Why did TI feel the need to develop OMAP?
You need additional processing capability for handling the new applications you are going to bring into this communications device. You have two forces for changing the landscape: One force is broadband, the fatter pipe, and the other thing is the application. Consumers are used to the battery life they have in today's phone and they won't compromise the battery life. However, as we move to the next generation of consumer devices, you will see more form factors coming into play. Wireless terminals will be primarily handsets, but also wireless PDAs, wireless cameras and wireless pens. What you need is processor architecture to support those different form factors.

How important is OMAP to TI?
It is one of the most important things for the company right now. For the wireless strategy it is key. It is our wireless processor architecture for 2.5G and 3G. We believe this is one of the drivers for the Internet age. The Internet age is everything about communication. We believe that we have a niche here for the Internet age. OMAP has been selected by key companies, by Nokia, by Ericsson, by Sony. This is a bit of a stretch, but if you add up the current market shares of the companies that have selected OMAP, it's more than 70 percent of the market.

How close is the competition to offering alternatives to OMAP?
To play in the wireless space, you need two things: a state-of-the-art solution for the communications (meaning a communications chipset) and an application processing strategy. If I'm looking at it from that level, I think we're the only company that has a successful strategy. Yes, we have competitors--Intel, Analog Devices, Infineon, to name a few--but if you look at them, they're playing in one area more than the other. But you need both.

Has the slowdown in the semiconductor and communications sectors affected OMAP's progress?
I don't think so. It's a very difficult question, because the whole industry is suffering. Our customers are suffering and adoption for wireless devices is not as high as it was expected to be this year. We are of course impacted by the slowdown of the wireless industry, and therefore I cannot say that it has no impact.

Aren't 2.5G and especially 3G still far removed from the market in North America? Why should we be interested now?
For 2.5G, GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) is deployed in Europe now. A number of American carriers have announced that they would develop a GPRS network in the U.S. AT&T and Cingular have announced they would move to GSM GPRS. The world is really going GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), which at the end of last year had about 82 percent of new subscribers.

What about 3G?
For 3G, it starts with Japan, which is making trials as we speak. Europe will launch UMTS service, which is a combination of wideband CDMA and the GPRS I was just talking about. UTMS will become the de facto standard. That's good for TI. We very much believe in our future, because the world is going in the right direction based on what our technology capabilities are today. For 3G, we think UMTS will be deployed in America. When will this be? We don't know. But we don't think it's an "if." It's more a "when" than an "if." Things happen so quickly; I don't think I can predict.

How do you think it will play out?
Nobody knows exactly how this will play out. Who would have bet two years ago that two of the largest TDMA (time division multiple access) carriers in the U.S. would announce that they will deploy GPRS? Maybe carriers will get smart: Getting profit out of 3G quickly will change how it goes in the U.S. because others would want to get in on the opportunity.

Do you really think people will want to watch short videos? How is it different than a PC or using their phone for shopping?
I don't think you're going to look for the same content. Why tune in your cell phone to watch a TV show? But it's more for things like having a drink with friends and watching a movie trailer to see if you want to go see it, or communications with your loved ones. I personally believe that sending pictures and postcards will be popular. For example, a few years back when the GSM committee was working on short messaging (SMS), people said, "Why will people use the phone for this? The keyboard is too small." Since then, there's been an explosion in SMS. There's going to be something like 200 billion messages this year. Teenagers are sending more than 100 messages a month...That's attractive to carriers to deploy because it means business. If carriers have a business case and consumers like it, then we can expect it. We are going to bring very good content to wireless terminals in the next few years. This can be deployed on 2.5G.

What is the 2.5G or 3G phone going to do for sales of pagers, PDAs and even PCs?
I think that form factors are going to be very diverse. So you will have wireless PDAs coexisting with wireless phones. It all depends. What will maybe make the difference is the way you interact with the device, the user interface. The PDA might be more data-centric, rather than communications-centric. I think that PDAs are going wireless as well, using the same communications infrastructure and a growing number of them using the same architecture.

What about pagers? Seems like you wouldn't need one.
I think pagers will evolve. What is a pager today? It is sending a short message. But you will see people offering pagers that have phone capabilities. I think you need a platform that is communications-independent and can support all communications platforms. There will not be a world of applications for wireless PDAs and wireless phones that are distinct the way they are today.

In terms of OMAP, what comes after 3G?
I don't know. 3G is going to keep us busy for a while. It's a difficult question. I think people are struggling with when--not if--to deploy 3G. At the same time, we are only at the beginning of 2.5G deploy. Some people talk about next generations; I don't know. But what we do know is that we are now in the Internet age and the communications age. So you can imagine that everything is going to be more connected.