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Motorola unveils next-generation mobile chip

Product vendors are given to hyperbolic language -- such as "revolutionary" and "breakthrough" -- that is mostly an exaggeration of fact. However, Motorola's announcement last week of a new chip architecture designed to allow original equipment manufacturers to build smaller, less-expensive and more secure devices for communications and entertainment might merit at least some of the accompanying hyperbole.

Motorola describes its new Mobile Extreme Convergence (MXC) architecture as "completely revolutionizing the development of multi-media mobile devices." That may be a bit of a stretch, but by redesigning the mobile architecture to combine functions -- essentially reducing the hardware platform from the size of a credit card to that of a postage stamp -- Motorola is giving manufacturers of high-performance, mass-market mobile devices a means of reducing size, power consumption and "part count."

And for software developers, the new architecture offers some real wiggle room.

With MXC, Motorola has combined the processor cores for communications and applications in a single package with a shared-memory subsystem, said Sheila Rader, distinguished member of the technical staff of Motorola's Wireless and Mobile Systems group. The result is a fully equipped smartphone platform in a package that measures 16 millimeters by 20 millimeters by 1.4 millimeters. Such a tiny footprint will make it possible for virtually any handheld device to be equipped with communications capabilities, she said.

Although these two hardware components are combined in the new architecture, the corresponding software functions are kept separate, Rader explained, making it possible for application developers to create apps that easily port it to other MXC devices.

According Rader, MXC has been the subject of "intense focus" of the wireless group for the past 18 months. Motorola unveiled the new architecture during last week's Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association's CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment show in Las Vegas. "Our objective was to have a smartphone with a lot of capabilities," Rader said, "but to achieve the kind of talk and standby times that we're accustomed to in today's voice-only cell phones. This is really not rocket science. It's just a systematic, makes-sense, critical-thinking kind of architecture."

It may not be rocket science, but according to InStat/MDR analyst Max Baron, the new architecture has strategic implications for the company, positioning Motorola to compete with companies like Intel and Texas Instruments, going beyond traditional mobile device markets and into consumer electronics. "The rapid delivery of chips and platforms by Motorola for mobile and tethered applications will enable it to secure a solid share in an addressable embedded processors market that is expected to consume more than 900 million chips by 2007," Baron said in a statement.

Franz Fink, VP and GM of Motorola's Wireless and Mobile Systems Group, called the new MXC architecture a "complete rethink of cellular platform design."

"We went outside of that box and rethought the entire device architecture," added Fink. "Our new MXC architecture is the result and with it, we believe we have a revolutionary innovation that will significantly impact mobile market growth. The MXC architecture is a streamlined approach to building devices, and that means OEMs have the potential to double or even triple the number and kind of devices they make and deploy. MXC also makes it possible for OEMs to bring highly valued applications into the mass market, enabling untapped value for suppliers, carriers, developers and consumers alike."

Specifically, the new MXC architecture is designed to:

* Converge the hardware needed to drive call-processing technology and applications-processing technology with a shared-memory system, enhancing the performance of both functions;

* Separate the communication function software to provide a clean application development environment for rapid deployment of features across tiers, allowing developers to write once and port their applications to any other device, using a consistent processing core;

* Utilize hardware acceleration and memory-caching techniques to dramatically cut power consumption;

* Secure airborne transactions and provide on-board security by incorporating Motorola's security technology to help protect consumers and enable widespread access to anywhere, anytime downloads like video files and mobile commerce transactions; and

* Enable a "system-in-a-postage-stamp"-size module, to be easily integrated into existing device footprints. When fully implemented, the architecture is expected to deliver a fully equipped "smartphone" platform in a 16 millimeter by 20 millimeter package and a slim 1.4 millimeters, enabling virtually any product -- an MP3 player, a handheld DVD a digital camera -- to become a fully functioned "smart mobile device."

Samples of the first MXC silicon will ship to customers starting in the middle of 2004, Rader said, and products based on the MXC platform should begin shipping in the second quarter of 2005.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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