ARM Jumps into the Digital Signal Controller Market

By Will Strauss
(PresseBox) (Duesseldorf, ) ARM Ltd. has long been known as the biggest supplier of RISC IP, with digital signal processing (DSP) always considered a footnote to its RISC product offerings. In reality, ARM has long been the major supplier of DSP IP, although never in cellular basebands (that's CEVA's territory). Numerically, ARM's biggest DSP footprint has been in the disk drive controller market...the secondlargest unit market for processor silicon (after cellphones). Last week, ARM introduced the Cortex M4 digital signal controller (DSC) IP, removing all pretense that it's not in the DSP business. Billed as a blend of 32bit MCU and DSP features, the M4 will enable licensees to go headtohead with other DSC products like Texas Instruments' C2000 and Microchip Technology's dsPIC product lines. Although DSCs are simply lowend DSP implementations (typically 100MHz and lower), they mostly address markets for motor control and digital power supplies, with sensing applications like automotive lane change warning becoming more significant.

In reality, most of ARM's RISC engines have included DSP capability, beginning with the ARM9E, which was codeveloped with Cirrus Logic and Lucent Microelectronics for disc drive controller applications. For many years, ARM eschewed advertising the DSP label, since it didn't want to offend its biggest customer: Texas Instruments. Long the RISC part of TI's cellular basebands, ARM's rapid rise in the market was tied to TI's success in the cellular market. Now that TI is getting out of the baseband business, there's no point in hiding ARM's DSP IP market footprint.

MWC'10 Notes

The Mobile World Congress, the world's premier wireless event, was held in Barcelona in mid-February. Here are some of our observations from the event:

- LTE was everywhere, almost all as FPGA implementations of their upcoming LTEonly product (with Icera being the exception), targeted only for dongles and modules.
- Icera Semiconductor was the only company to demonstrate both LTE and 3G on their current simply reflashing one of its OEM customer's HSPA/5MHz dongles to run the LTE stack. A true illustration of a softwaredefined modem. Icera's advantage is to deliver multimode LTE technology in software at no additional silicon cost.
- WiMAX houses seemed to be headed to LTE, too. Beceem (#1 in WiMAX terminal chips last year) told me that they were going with CEVA-X cores for their upcoming LTE product. Sequans (#2 WiMAX terminal chip vendor last year is also going with CEVA-X cores for LTE.
- CEVA Inc. was showing (in FPGA form) the only other singlechip LTE terminal, based on its CEVA-X core and LTE stack from mimoOn GmbH.
- Tensilica Inc. was showing its multicore LTE terminal solution, also based on the mimoOn LTE stack.
- NTT DoCoMo was showing what was probably the only LTE handset prototype, a Fujitsu device based on multicores from Tensilica.
- Blue Wonder Communications (Dresden) was showing a complete LTE terminal chip (in FPGA form) based on 6 Tensilica cores and LTE stack from 4M Wireless. They only license the IP and will not make chips. They claim they are ready to license, now. The key people came from Systemonic GmbH, which was bought by Philips Semiconductor prior to becoming NXP.
- Renesas introduced a multimode power amplifier chip for UMTS/HSPA+/LTE handsets. Moreover, the company has recently beefed up its Munich operations and is aiming for 60% of their chip shipments to be outside of Japan. Nokia has long been a major customer for Renesas' RF and power amplifier chips and rumor has it that the company is also designing a complete LTE modem for Nokia.
- Motorola was showing an LTE prototype handset chip designed in their Austin Texas design center. Others told me that it was not going into production, but simply a proof of concept.
- Several other LTE baseband chips were announced by companies like Altair, Cognovo Ltd., DesignArt Networks, WaveSat, and likely others that we didn't encounter.
- ARM was described by one reporter as "The Belle of the Ball", since they were in almost everything that's portable. Highend Cortex-A9 application processor announcements were from several sources and Nvidia claimed that they would be the first to produce Cortex-A9 silicon in their Tegra 2 product, which they said will ship by midyear. Texas Instruments was showing a wide variety of applications on their upcoming OMAP4 application processor that is also based on the Cortex-A9, while bragging that their current OMAP3 had 40 handset designs either shipping or in the queue.
- Following LTE, femtocells seemed to be one of the most popular themes at MWC. Last year, Qualcomm seemed to be on the fence concerning femtocells, this year the term was prominent on their booth and they introduced their first femtocell product. picoChip and Percello both indicated volume shipments of their baseband chips into the femtocell market, and market leader Ubiquisys, which has employed both chips, indicated that they are moving to an IPonly market model. That action probably was based on the fact that Huawei is undercutting femtocell prices, as they have in other markets they have entered, such as they did in the 3G dongle market, killing margins for competitors.
- For base stations, Xilinx was demonstrating a complete LTE prototype base station, based on their Vertex FPGA chips (that also employed the company's MicroBlaze soft RISCs). Mindspeed was demonstrating its new 26processor baseband chip for LTE base stations. Rumor had it that they were partnering with ZTE on the development. LSI Corp., the dominant provider of DSP chips for 2G/2.5G base stations, was demonstrating their new Axxia(TM) Communication Processor family which integrates multiple PowerPC RISCs with multiple StarCore DSP cores for a compelling 3G/4G infrastructure chip solution. NetLogic Microsystems (through its newlyacquired RMI Corp. operation) was touting its XLR732 processor chip that integrates eight multithreaded MIPS64 cores for Datang Mobile's advanced TD-SCDMA and LTE mobile infrastructure solutions.
- Without a highlevel operating system, there would be no Smartphones. It was tough to walk through pass the crowds when Microsoft spokesmen were waxing eloquent about features of its upcoming Windows Phone 7 O/S. Even though the current WinMo 6.5 is long of tooth and losing market share to Android, there was plenty of interest in the upcoming product. Intel's Linux OS effort (Moblin) will be merging with Nokia's Maemo Linux platform to create a newly named entity called MeeGo. Moreover, Samsung introduced its homegrown Bada O/S, to ship next month. We're not sure that there's market traction for MeeGo or Bada, but with Symbian^4 looming, too, Microsoft will have an uphill climb.

CTIA Conference (Las Vegas, March 23-25)

The Cellular Telephone Industry Association (CTIA) conference looming later this month will be our chance to fill in the blanks that were not covered at MWC'10. We look forward to seeing you there.

Shameless Plug:

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