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Flexible chips let phones do it all

Versatility the key to cutting handset costs

A US startup claims it has a programmable chip that could allow mobile phones to become just about anything a manufacturer wants them to be: Wi-Fi handsets, GPS devices, multimedia broadcast receivers and more.

Sandbridge’s chip can handle the communications processing for a wide range of protocols, as well as multimedia and application processing, which could drive down handset prices or help add network capabilities to cameras and other devices.

Each additional baseband chip that is added to a phone tacks about $5 (£3) onto the cost of the silicon. That cost, in turn, can translate to about $30 (£17) in the phone's final price.

All the major mobile phone chip makers are moving toward single-chip designs that incorporate many capabilities, and Sandbridge probably won’t be able to dislodge them from their tight relationships with big handset makers, an analyst has said. Still, the startup may be able to get a head start of a year or two, attract some small and possibly larger handset vendors, and put price pressure on the market.

The first chip based on the company’s SB3000 architecture, called the SB3010, is available now in sample quantities. In addition to baseband processing, it is powerful enough to handle applications and multimedia processing.

The 3010 is designed for 3G (third-generation) handsets, and Sandbridge is looking to add another chip next year for higher-speed 3.5G networks such as HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access), as well as WiMax.

Sandbridge plans to sell its chips to mobile phone makers and let them, along with mobile operators, define what functions go on the chip. Unlike most phone chips, which have to be programmed in assembly language, the SB3000 chips can be programmed in the C language, which is a significant advantage.

"Coding in C is a lot cheaper than coding in assembly language," an analyst said.

Sandbridge believes the sky's the limit on functions. For example, using just one chip, a vendor could create a combination Wi-Fi and mobile phone. These phones, which could carry calls over a mobile network when the user is on the road and then switch over to a Wi-Fi network when in range, are seen by some carriers as key to improving indoor coverage and offering customers new service plans.

Another possibility is a single-chip phone that can work with both GSM (global system for mobile communications) and CDMA (code-division multiple access) networks. With roaming agreements, that capability could make it much easier for CDMA operators to offer global service.

The recent proliferation of wireless technologies has proved the wisdom of the Sandbridge strategy hatched in 2001, a spokesperson said.

"Everything that has happened in the mobile phone market and with the wireless communications market over the past three years has worked perfectly well for us," he said.

However, analysts say it will be hard for a newcomer to break into the handset market because of competition from vendors such as Freescale Semiconductor, Texas Instruments and Intel. But Sandbridge chips might find a place in products from new manufacturers.

Where Sandbridge might make the biggest impact is in new types of devices, such as digital still or video cameras that can stay connected to the internet over different kinds of networks depending on location. If the company's chips have enough processing power, they could shift the device to the best available network for price, speed or power consumption, based on the user's priorities. That capability might even come in handy in cars.


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