Android opens door to IC open source

By: Mark Kirstein
President of MultiMedia Intelligence (Scottsdale, Ariz.), a market research and consulting firm.


BARCELONA, Spain — (14.Feb.08) Mobile World Congress this year has offered a storm of announcements and demonstrations surrounding Google’s new Android mobile operating system, with Texas Instruments, Qualcomm and others showing off early implementations. But the demonstrations of Android–a Linux-based, open mobile platform–sparked as many questions as answers. One open question is what it will mean to be an “open source” semiconductor manufacturer in a market as competitive as mobile-handset applications processors. Several semiconductor manufacturers are active members in the Open Handset Alliance, a group of technology and mobile companies committed to deploy handsets and services using the Android platform. Among them are leading handset chip makers Broadcom, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm.

In contributing their low-level drivers and libraries to the Android platform, however, the companies also commit to an open-source model. They’ll have to make the full source code readily available to everyone, including their competitors. That opens a host of questions that could take years to resolve. The Mobile World Congress exposed the various issues to the light of day.

Qualcomm and TI confirmed in discussions that as part of their participation in the Android platform, they would make source code for their low-level drivers available through the royalty-free licensing program. Other companies that contribute their intellectual property into the Android platform will likewise make their source code available.

The backers of Android point to the benefits of an open-source model: more innovation as more companies develop solutions, faster time-to-market, lower price points and even better utilization of the sheer power of the applications processors. Indeed, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm hope their participation in Android will spur design wins and make it easier to incorporate their chips into the wave of Android handset introductions the market is likely to see later this year.

Nobody, however, is quite sure what the implications of open source code will be on semiconductor manufacturers. Linux developers already understand the model, but it’s new to the software engineers and market strategists at the chip companies.

The driver source code will provide unprecedented visibility into the detailed functionality of the chips. While such source code is regularly shared with OEMs under nondisclosure agreements, it will now fall directly into the hands of competitors. Broadcom and Qualcomm will have unparalleled access to the detailed functions of TI chips, and vice versa.

While visibility among these direct tier-one competitors unleashes a new competitive dynamic, it may turn out to be the least of the concerns. Source code will also be available to the growing set of Chinese semiconductor manufacturers hoping to compete in the handset market. Will that access accelerate the Chinese vendors’ ability to mimic functionality and drop prices? If it does, given the open-source licensing model, will manufacturers have any recourse?

These are among the backroom questions being posed as mobile-technology providers across the board decide how-and whether-to participate in Android. Decisions made now will have implications for years to come.

Who showed what?

TI demonstrated an Android-based prototype handset and developer kit last week. Showcasing TI’s Omap3430 and Omap850 processors, the demonstrations validated TI’s ability to provide multimedia features, connectivity options like WLAN and Bluetooth, and rich user interfaces on Android. The platform promises to provide access to applications such as Web browsers, e-mail, messaging and video.Qualcomm similarly offered a live demonstration of an Android prototype. Its offering was based on its MSM7201A single-chip solution, which was originally developed to target the Microsoft Mobile OS.

While Broadcom is also a member of the Open Handset Alliance, its demonstrations at Mobile World Congress stood in stark contrast to the Android demos. Broadcom showed its BCM2153 dual-core HSDPA processor, with the ability to support Symbian, Windows Mobile or Linux on a single, monolithic chip. The 3G solution stretches flexibly across what today are the three most popular operating systems supporting the smart-phone market. STMicroelectronics, for its part, showed off its Nomadik multimedia application processor, the STn8815, ported to various operating systems, including Symbian, Nucleus, WinCE, Linux 2.4 and Android.

The handset demonstrations at Mobile World Congress illustrated the growing power of mobile multimedia devices as a new class of application-centric mobile gear emerges. These products are Internet browsers, music players, text messengers and e-mail devices that also make voice calls. Market research firm and consultancy MultiMedia Intelligence projects that feature-rich, high-end multimedia phones will grow from last year’s 20 million units to more than 250 million units in 2011.

Touchscreens also could be found everywhere at Mobile World Congress, as the shadow of Apple’s iPhone drew a competitive response from handset manufacturers. MultiMedia Intelligence projects the number of handsets with touchscreens will approach 200 million by 2011.

Yet for all the feature-rich multimedia handset demonstrations, the implications of the Android platform seemed paramount.

Source: EE Times

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