The first technical step in solving the cellular bandwidth crisis is the obvious one – build more towers. While this seems obvious it is going to take changes of heart by two camps. First, the providers must rededicate themselves to building a complete infrastructure. Secondly, the NIMBY’s (Not In My Back Yard) must realize that compromise is required. Society will be hurt if adequate cellular bandwidth isn’t available.

Despite my railing against the cellular companies, this step is more about individuals together with some improved creativity on both sides. There are ways to make cell towers blend in with trees. In some cases church steeples have hidden antennas. Citizens must look for compromise rather than just saying no to new towers. An example of the many ways towers can be disguised is shown in a very nice CBS News.

Some people fight cell towers based on a perceived health risk. There is no research to support this fear even though it has been looked into extensively. A good source of information is the American Cancer Society site here.

Recently the large companies, especially ATT, have been trying to get more spectrum space. The failed T-Mobile merger is one example. This is at best a stop gap measure. The T-Mobile acquisition would have done less than it first appears and was more about strengthening the duopoly. Some of the other attempts currently underway such as buying spectrum space allocations from companies either not using or under utilizing the space will have more near term benefits. The explosion of mobile data usage will, however, make all of this be at best a small portion of the solution.

Coming up next – Femtocells, Picocells, Microcells and Metrocells.

Step one in solving the cellular bandwidth crisis is the most difficult one. It isn’t a technical issue and that is why it is so difficult. For things to improve the major players must have a change of heart. They must be willing to think out of the box and to take a broader view of the problem. Many times the first step to solving a problem is admitting there is one. That is only partially true in this case. The providers are well aware of the problem. They are in denial over the scope and the eventual backlash from consumers that will come but they do recognize that there is a shortage of bandwidth. Unfortunately, the providers are way too comfortable with an incremental and safe approach. What is needed are passionate people determined to bring pervasive connectivity with high bandwidth and constant availability. Along with this must be the courage to embark on a multi-pronged attack. As we’ll see in later posts, the technology is mostly here. There is an exception when we discuss the stadium problem but I’ll leave that as a teaser pointing to a later, more techie, post

When it comes to cellular bandwidth we have two trends on a collision course. On the one hand we have smartphones moving into the dominant position among phones. Furthermore, convergence is rapidly making the phone the dominant computing platform. Layered on this is the expansion of mobile connectivity into laptops, tablets and even automobiles. If you watch the ads you will see download speed sold aggressively. 4G is the new buzzword. It all sounds so very wonderful. In a few weeks we’ll have a 4G (LTE) enabled iPad. Later this year there will be a 4G iPhone. Wow! Times are great. Hidden in all of this, however, is a very dark trend.  Both ATT and Verizon have eliminated unlimited data plans. People who are grandfathered in have still been smiling. Recently, however, ATT and Verizon have quietly begun capping usage or limiting speeds even on unlimited plans. The most onerous example is the recent action by ATT. Some users are getting throttled down once they exceed  2GB. After reaching that milestone speed is reduced by about 10X for the rest of the month. The data connection effectively becomes useless. Surprisingly, a 3GB plan costs the same as the grandfathered unlimited plan and won’t get you throttled. Users on the unlimited plan are being treated worse than new users. Even Sprint has begun to slow down heavy users despite what their ads say.

The problem is that there isn’t enough bandwidth to serve users. The providers keep pushing the wonderful capabilities of smartphones and their new 4G networks all the while knowing that the capacity isn’t there. How did we get here? It’s partly because smartphones have taken off faster than the providers can keep up. They don’t want to lose customers so they can’t come out and just tell people to slow down. They pretend all is well. That’s the surface reason. There is a deeper issue at play. The two big providers, ATT and Verizon, are like Ford and GM in the 60’s. Both are content to make minor improvements while they rake in big profits. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, and they signal each other to move at a pace that maintains profits at the expense of bandwidth delivery. ATT and Verizon form a duopoly much like Visa and Mastercard. Short term profits rule at the expense of a larger, longer term vision. The major players have settled into a comfort zone which protects profits at the expense of moving portable computing forward. Because of the nature of cellular service, this duopoly enjoys a protected status. Once you own the spectrum space and have the basic infrastructure in place, it is near impossible for a new company to gain traction. Customers have no place to run.

How do we solve the cellular bandwidth problem before it becomes totally devastating? That I will address over the next week.

This is certainly a belated post. I have been meaning to write it for many months but kept getting distracted. CES came and went with little that was earth shattering but a lot that was incremental. TV’s are more connected than ever while also getting bigger and thinner. Computers are slimmer and faster. The Macbook Air line is finally getting some serious competition but the pricing appears to be less than stellar. Here is a case where the Apple tax may be less than people suspect. SSD’s are slowly replacing hard drives and SSD speeds continue to increase. If you haven’t replaced your main hard drive with an SSD then you are in for a treat along with the concomitant blow to your wallet. Tablets are rushing forward. Vastly lower pricing should open tablets up to many more people and cause Android market share to surge. NFC is moving forward and uses are expanding. By 2013 I expect most top end smartphones will support NFC and that includes Apple.

There was, however, one area that brought a small amount of excitement – automotive. I have blogged before about Ford and their moves forward. There is a summary of the automotive announcements at Engadget so I won’t repeat a lot of it here. In general, phones, especially the iPhone, are being better integrated into automobiles and the move towards running apps on the automobile’s systems gets closer to reality. Right now most apps are proprietary but their numbers are increasing. Automobiles are getting more tightly connected to the web with the ability to send data between car and home. Back in 2009 GM and Ford announced that they intended to build Android cars. Here it is 2012 and we are still waiting but things are moving forward. The Chinese are there with the Roewe 350. Ford, GM, Mercedes et. al. are moving closer. In the end transparency of use and data will prevail and the automobile will merge seamlessly with the phone, TV and tablet.

I decided to read the biography of Steve Jobs. Because it was Steve Jobs’ biography, it seemed appropriate to use iBooks. This was my first experience downloading and reading a large book in iBooks. I had previously used iBooks for a number of PDF files so I was familiar with the program and I viewed it positively.

The book itself was fascinating. I give it an A-. It is extensive and comes across as balanced. The main downside involves keeping track of timelines. When the author covers Jobs’s romantic life, the timeline being discussed overlaps the timelines previously covered. I wish there had been a graph showing how the events from different areas of Jobs’s life lined up. Other than that it was an enjoyable and informative read. I won’t cover what was in the book. Buy it and read it. The author did a better job than I ever could.

One of the themes in the book was Jobs’s obsession with creating a consistent and cohesive user experience. Here is where I ran into a problem with iBooks. As mentioned above, the book was an interesting read. I got engrossed in it one day and found the battery on my iPad running low. I decided to charge the iPad and continue reading on my Macbook Pro. Imagine my surprise when I found out you can’t read an iBook on a Macbook Pro. Had I bought the book through Amazon and used the Kindle app I would have been fine. There are Kindle apps for iPhone, iPad, Android (tablet and phone), PC and, yes my dear readers, Macs. Apple needs to fix this immediately. It runs counter to the Apple philosophy and strikes me as glaringly inconsistent. While I think it would be in Apple’s best interest to release iBooks for the PC (but not Android), it is absolutely necessary to at least release it for OSX i.e. Mac. Right now I am advising everyone to stick with Kindle. There are too many reasons to want to be able to read a book on your laptop or desktop computer.

Reading the biography reminded me of my days selling Apple computers. It was 1978 and I was a graduate student in the physics department at Louisiana State University. To earn some extra money, I had taken a part time job at a small store called The Computer Place. It was a lot of fun. We sold Apple II and Commodore Pet computers and later added the Atari 400 and 800 with the Apple II being the big seller. I still have the old Apple II Red Book owner’s manual. I learned the rudiments of Basic, Pascal and Lisp while playing on the computers and solving customer problems. It was a time when the games that came with the Apple II were named Breakout and Star Trek. Only later would Apple be contacted regarding trademark and copyright violations. One Saturday I was trying to answer a customer’s question and was stuck. I decided to call Apple. Steve Jobs answered the phone. He was cordial and answered my question. What that question was I don’t remember. I do remember being impressed that Jobs was there on a Saturday and that he had answered my question as if I was a big time customer. That’s the only contact I ever had with Steve Jobs and it was a very short and minor moment but a fond memory just the same. Little did I know then that I would later be involved in a Silicon Valley startup, Cypress Semiconductor, and have my own up close and personal set of experiences with an intense and focused CEO i.e. one T. J. Rogers. However, that, as they say, is another story.

Old Memories

Posted: January 6, 2012 in Engineering, Management
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I ran across an old magazine a few days ago and it brought back a lot of memories. The magazine contains an article entitled “The Chip Man Finally Comes” discussing the founding of Integrated Device Technology’s (IDT) Atlanta Design Center (ADC). This was IDT’s first design group outside of California. ADC was different not only in location but in concept.  it was a central design organization and worked with all of the product lines in the company. For 16 years I ran ADC and it was the most fun I have ever had in my career. From just an idea it grew and generated hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue in many areas including networking, memory, logic, clocking and power. It’s a great feeling to create something like that and I feel fortunate to have had the experience. To take a small group of engineers and beat the competition when they have more money and more people is an awesome feeling. Looking at the operation today it’s easy to forget the early days of $10 surplus desks and a few people in a single room. For those interested, and particularly those who experience ADC, I have posted the article here.

RIM Keeps Falling

Posted: December 3, 2011 in Android, Apple, Google, RIM, Tablet
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I was never impressed with the RIM Playbook. I guess others weren’t either. RIM has written off a lot of the inventory as the Playbook continues to have dismal sales figures and has to be heavily discounted to move. HP and RIM are losers in the tablet wars but the implications for RIM are bigger. The smartphone and the tablet are becoming tightly linked. With a failing ecosystem surrounding it, the Blackberry is in danger. Never mind the good Blackberry sales mentioned in the link above; the future looks gloomy. Just look at the latest market share data:

Google (Android) and Apple (iOS) are gaining market share at RIM’s expense. RIM is now a distant third and I don’t see the trend reversing.

 

I have posted numerous times about the emergence of the large ecosystems covering smartphones, tablets, laptops and eventually TV’s. Just look at the trouble Microsoft is having getting traction for Windows Mobile 7. It’s a nice operating system but the ecosystem is still limited. This value looking at the ecosystem in a large context doesn’t just apply to computers and smartphones. In the semiconductor space, the success (or lack thereof) of a foundry is heavily influenced by the surrounding ecosystem. I am using ecosystem in a broad sense. It encompases tool support, foundry technology support, and IP availability.

Smaller foundries often support a limited number of tools. An analog fab might have DRC files for Cadence’s Assura but not Synopsys’ Hercules or Mentor’s Calibre. A digital fab might support Calibre but not the others. This can drive customers away but supporting software that no customer uses is a waste of money and dilutes support for real customers. Striking the right balance of tool support can be tricky.

Technology support is related to tool support but extends to areas such as design guidance. Just because tools are supported doesn’t mean getting to the desired end result will be easy. If the device model support is piecemeal, with little guidance by the foundry, then design teams can be left with an impossible number of combinations of simulations if they are to reasonably assure manufacturability.

The largest ecosystem issue is often IP support for the target process. I remember a VP of a product line declaring that a part would be run at a foundry that was giving the chip company excellent wafer pricing. The problem was that many of the I/O’s would have to be designed from scratch. The IP didn’t exist for the target process. In other cases, the IP existed but would have to be purchased. Moving to another foundry avoided IP expenses since the IP was available under agreements already in place with no incremental use charges.

So what does a smaller foundry do? Covering all of the tool sets can mean expensive staffing. The same goes for technology support. IP support can be a frustrating catch-22 situation. IP vendors don’t target the small foundry because, well, because they are small. But… in order to grow, the small foundry needs better IP support. Argh!!!

Attacking these issues is important and it is all about creating as complete and comprehensive an ecosystem as possible. Both tool support and technology support, while having some differences, revolve around the same solution – people. Not the number of people but the quality. This is one place where individual capability trumps numbers. A great engineer who has a deep understanding of what the tools do and how they work can convert a technology file from one tool to a competing product in short order. Attacking this with numbers rather than quality just leads to frustrated customers who eventually take their business elsewhere. These engineers must deeply understand how the tools are used and what the design team’s frustrations will be. For that reason I have often hired engineers for these positions with some design background or exposed them to design so that they appreciate what is annoying and why. Similarly, a great technologist who understands the needs of design teams can save the design teams weeks and even months worth of work by using his understanding of how the process parametrics vary relative to each other to generate a concise set of simulation corners.

The IP problem is more difficult. It may be necessary to put an IP development team in place to make sure a process has at least the basics building blocks available. This is a place where inexpensive labor may be a good solution. However, some IP, particularly high speed SERDES, require a few top notch engineers. If there are a large number of processes needing IP, an optimum solution is often a small group of highly skilled engineers backed up by a pool of cost effective talent. That often means a design group either in India or China. Blending the two groups can be difficult but, properly done, it can yield big benefits.

There is one more approach to IP support which has emerged and deserves strong consideration. Just join an existing ecosystem. UMC does this by trying to match their processes to those of TSMC. UMC attempts to make it easy to use IP originally targeted at TSMC. GlobalFoundries, and to a lesser extent samsung, try to follow IBM. This relationship is open and by contract as opposed to that of UMC which is down without the support of TSMC. Samsung, IBM and GlobalFoundries are members of the Common Platform Alliance. The concept is to have common processes that share IP and that the combined capacity of these three foundries will attract IP developers. The formation this year of a larger group matching the members of the Common Platform Alliance with Intel and TSMC in a joint process development agreement, the Global 450 Consortium, has the potential to further strengthen this approach. However, unlike the Common Platform Alliance, the Global 450 Consortium has no stated goal regarding IP interoperability. Still, a common technology base opens up the possibility of easier IP portability. The big question is how will those companies on the outside, such as UMC and SMIC, react.

While there was some buzz, I wonder if most people fully understand the meaning of Google’s announcement that they will no longer support the GMAIL app for Blackberry. HP has already exited the mobile battle (phones and tablets). The Google announcement shows how far RIM has fallen. RIM’s tablet is a non-starter. iOS5 adds a lot of the functionality of BBM. You have to ask yourself what makes Blackberry special. If Blackberry is just another smartphone then Android and iOS are more compelling. Apple has broken RIM’s hold on the corporate world. That wall has been breached. I wish I had good advice for RIM but it may be too late.

Steve Jobs may be gone but his influence continues. The latest sign is Adobe’s announcement that Flash is dead. OK, the actual comment in their blog post says they will no longer develop Adobe Flash for mobile platforms. In reality this means that Flash will die. Mobile platforms are reaching dominance so exiting the mobile market will effectively kill Flash.

Steve hated Flash and its absence from the iPad and iPhone is the root cause of the announcement of Adobe’s exit from the mobile Flash market. This is a big victory for Apple. The lack of Flash on iOS devices has been one reason to pick Android. It can be very frustrating browsing a web site and not begin able to view content due to a lack of Flash support in iOS. However, sites will almost certain shift to HTML5 so it is only a matter of time before Flash is irrelevant.