Thursday, December 20, 2007

FireWire fizzles

We at EE Times have covered IEEE 1394 aka FireWire for years, but this patently good technology may be on its last legs.

I have a story coming in Monday’s paper (I hope) that quotes senior engineering management at both Sony and Moto saying—unprompted--its time to say bye-bye to this interconnect. Smacks of a kiss of death to me.

Brian O’Rourke of In-Stat noted the technology is good but has always been the second or third choice in any given market. It takes a back seat to USB in PCs, HDMI in TVs and set-tops and MOST in cars. A Rodney Dangerfield of interfaces!

Why? It used to be faster than any alternative. But I guess there wasn’t demand for its 400 Mbit/s data rate circa 1993. Then there was the dollar-per-port royalty from Apple that apparently thought this was a product not a technology. Then the FCC foisted it on unwilling cable-TV companies who put chips in boxes without ports. Oi vay!

Kudos to the 1394 Trade Association and their members for their candor and persistence with efforts like HANA. At CES, the HANA 2.0 software will be shown running premium content from NBC Universal from three cable-TV systems across five media types, and the group is talking up its long-planned 3.2 Gbit/s version.

But HDMI seems to have won the TV and set-top, we don’t need another home network type (especially not an interconnect masquerading as a network) and there are plenty of alternative links with speeds as fast, features as rich, power consumption as low and prices driven to the floor thanks to mass adoption--some of them are even wireless.

Sign of the times: I met an EE from one 1394 company at the MoCA conference last month scouting around for new growth opportunities. Maybe there is just one or two more stories to write about this technology—its demise and burial.

Life in Embargo City

One of the hardest parts of my job is dealing with the reality distortion field. There are big things companies are doing—and mistakes they have made--that they don’t want to talk about publicly. Rather than be frank they with withhold or embargo information, ask you to sign NDAs or try to impress you with a content-free marketing tap dance.

Case in point: I know Silicon Image is doing some stuff in mobile and planning some stuff in networking. But there is some stuff I agreed I would not say (yet) and other stuff they will not say yet (unless you are a partner under NDA), and in the meantime a lot of spin in the form of fancy but vague Powerpoint to keep Wall Street interested in the stock.

Almost every company I deal with plays these games as part of doing business. Consortia do it too: Right now the USB-IF is not being fully forthcoming on their DTV-to-mobile plan-in-progress, and the people at Cable Labs and the CEA won’t say much about their networked OCAP and Digital Cable Ready-Plus plans.

Of course, I have my own part in this ecosystem, trying to get stories before anyone else does. It can be fun and useful, but sometimes it’s also frustrating on days when the information lockdown and marketing spin has me reeling. I guess those are the days when the little man behind the curtain who pretends to be the Great and Powerful Oz is having a good day.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The TV plug plot thickens

Add the FireWire crowd to the mix of people trying to define the plug of choice in the digital living room. The 1394 Trade Association says it is aiming its new 3.2 Gbit/s spec at carrying uncompressed video. That's HDMI territory, baby.

Upping the ante, the trade group said it is working on a spec for 1394 over coax. Sounds like a home network play to me. That likely will compete with whatever Silicon Image has going on behind the curtain called the Personal Entertainment Network.

So, we have digital TVs adopting HDMI as a de facto standard, set-tops with FireWire --thanks to the FCC requirement for a copy-protected interface--and the world of PCs, cameras and cellphones wearing various sizes of USB--plus a new USB variant in the works for carrying compressed video between TVs and devices. I love a good mud fight!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

HDMI and USB fight over TV

This is like one of those living room battles over who gets the remote control.

I am told the USB Implementers Forum is working on a version of USB that aims to link mobile devices to TVs. The spec is supposed to be out sometime in 2008. A USB-IF spokeswoman said the new spec aims to carry compressed high def video and should complement HDMI. I don't have much hard data on this, so I welcome any comments on it posted here or at rbmerrit@cmp.com

The interesting wrinkle here is that while USB has got significant traction in digital cameras and is starting to take hold in cellphones, it ain't nowhere to be seen in TVs. That's the terrain of HDMI, and Silicon Image, HDMI's backer, has been showing the financial community foils about how it sees mobile devices like cameras and cellphones as its next big expansion area.

Of course these wired guys will have to tussle with all the wireless options springing up as well—Wi-Fi and its derivatives, Bluetooth and derivatives, UWB and 60 GHz radios to name the main ones. This cat fight alone could make for an interesting CES next month.

The UWB crew reacts

Jack Shandle over at Wireless Designline has a good rundown of the reactions the ultrawideband crew are having to the report this week on the underwhelming data rates for wireless USB. His discussion of the unresolved issues around detect-and-avoid strategies and multi-frequency support is particularly cogent.

I had a chat myself with Stephan Wood, president of the WiMedia Alliance, yesterday for a story I was working on. I applaud his idea of the industry proactively planning use of unlicensed spectrum so a lot of sub-optimal devices don't swap the airwaves.

But I have to note Wood's notion of possibly reserving 60 GHz for uncompressed video and UWB bands for compressed video sounds suspiciously like a way to carve the pie without leaving much for the Wi-Fi that is the best established and perhaps most proactive of all wireless camps these days with its Gbit effort well on its way.

What's more, like it or not, we live in a capitalist techno-democracy where anyone can field anything and consumers vote with their dollars about what wins. That isn't always the prettiest or shortest route and it doesn't always favor the optimal technology, but that's the way the game is played.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bad grades for wireless USB

OK, wireless USB promoters, you are grounded until you get those data rates up. The official tests results from Octoscope are in. They are better than the 20 Mbits/s the group was reporting initially back in October. But the 50 Mbit/s results of the final scores are still not up to par—go back and hit the books, people. Remember, even though you are a big consortium there are plenty of competitors who want to eat your lunch.

Mike Foley of the Bluetooth SIG says his group is still optimistic it can ride UWB to get to a 100 Mbit/s application layer data rate with BT 3.0. The wireless USB problems according to the BT people stem mainly from the USB protocol itself which Mike called "not friendly for wireless, they are too chatty and that impacts data throughput and power consumption."

BT 3.0 will use its existing radio as a control channel, only turning on a UWB radio when big chucks of data are ready to be sent. And BT 3.0 will tap into 6 GHz frequencies as well, he added.

More PAN-demonium

I hear startup Kleer hopes to make a splash at CES in January with its proprietary alternative to Bluetooth used last year in MP3 players from Thomson. But I have yet to see a solid technical analysis comparing Kleer's technology to Bluetooth. If you have some data on this, please post a comment or email me at rbmerrit@cmp.com

I am also still waiting for word on a Wibree killer in the works from Qualcomm. The company said earlier this year it has something in the labs. But I have yet to see any details leak out on it.

STM sees DTV, DisplayPort at its Genesis

Good timing for STMicro today, offering to snap up Genesis MicroChip for an estimated $336 million. The industry is on a significant ramp in LCD TVs and digital TVs, as well as the DisplayPort interface Genesis helped pioneer that will appear inside many of those devices. The acquisition will help STM grab a bigger share of the growing market.

Long term the duo will have some nice integration plays, and STM could use Genesis' DisplayPort technology to expand its business in PCs. In the short term, STM may see an opportunity to reduce some redundant costs and make the Genesis parts even more profitable. But even without cuts, this is a good deal. Genesis reported sales of $191 million in the past year, has top-drawer customers such as Dell and Samsung and a nice pile of some 210 patents.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Express gets a tune up

I got a flame today saying the comment in my previous post about Intel's Geneseo being a candidate for PCI Express version 3.0 was off the mark.

"Geneseo does not exist other than as an Intel marketing term, a term never recognized by the PCI SIG. All of the SIG proposals have seen extensive discussion and modifications" from multiple companies, he said.

The comment led to more back and forth and discussions with another source. It all helped me get a somewhat clearer picture of the work on PCI extensions over at the PCI SIG which I posted as a story on the EE Times site tonight.

Clearly, I have yet to get a sense of many of the details of the new extensions in the works for Express. No doubt I'll be hearing more from the SIG in the new year—if not sooner. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Inside the x86

A week or so ago I asked readers if they had any skinny on Intel's thinking about SoC interconnects. I didn't hear anything back, but the reality is I have a fair amount of background on the subject…and I learned some interesting new wrinkles doing a report to appear at EE Times on Monday.

What I already knew: Intel has announced its Quick Path Interconnect as a upgrade for its front-side bus to appear in Nehalem CPUs starting in 2008. It is only for the hardy few co-processor types who need a fully coherent link. The Geneseo technology it is developing as a candidate for PCI Express 3.0 is the link for everybody else.

What I have learned: In addition to these external on-chip interconnects, there is one or more internal Intel interconnects the company plans to support.

What's more I also talked to Chuck Moore of AMD about their use of coherent and non-coherent HyperTransport links as their main SoC boulevards. Intel and AMD have clearly been courting third parties to hop on their different buses. Chuck said these two pairs of links are probably all anyone will ever see in the emerging world of x86 interconnects.

But "an interesting question is how these two pairs of standards will start to mingle," he said, suggesting multi-protocol links serving multiple purposes.

In addition, "there could be interesting protocol extensions beyond coherency for the next generation of HyperTransport," Moore added. Rather than communicating and synchronizing through memory, devices could link up in ways that "are more optimal," Moore said.

Just remember, dear readers, for this strategic peek into the future of X86 SoCs I charge you all of zero dollars. So, next time I ask for a tip, please drop a line or post a note to keep this little economy flowing, mon freres.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Cellular cracks open

The biggest interconnect story of the next few years may be the move to open cellular networks, creating the rough equivalent of a mobile Internet. Jake MacLeod, CTO at Bechtel Comms and an old hand in building cellular nets, thinks it is inevitable today's nets tightly controller by carriers will ultimately become open.

"What Google and other new entrants want is access to mobile customers," he told me in an interview for a story posted today. "They have a right to provide them mobility services that don’t have to be tied to an AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile."

Google has "a very creative play that will be met with a lot of resistance, but if they are successful they could change the face of communications," he said.

Verizon Wireless took a step in this direction stating last week it would open its network to any complaint device starting in 2008. Whoever gets the 700 MHz spectrum up for auction next week could push the trend further, given the FCC's mandate for open access on at least some of those airwaves.

Have any skinny on the details for compliance with Verizon? Got an opinion or rant on cellular nets? Sound off with a posting here or at rbmerrit@cmp.com

Sunday, December 02, 2007

DisplayPort gathers steam

DisplayPort backers gather in San Francisco this week for the third plugfest for the standard written by the Video Electronics Standards Association. The interface has been slowly gathering steam since a critical mass of vendors officially got behind the spec at CES in January. Bob Meyers, the HP display guru chairing the standard effort, said this year's CES will show an even broader group of proponents, products and prototypes—as well as an update on plans for a two-stage upgrade path.

Foreshadowing the rise of this new interconnect, Integrated Device Technology announced today it has created a new digital display division focused on chips for DisplayPort standard. The company has five DisplayPort parts in the works, but has yet to start sampling any of them.

An IDT spokesman said DisplayPort is not only being used as an external PC interface but is also replacing LVDS as an internal link inside notebooks and LCD TVs. He estimated it could appear in 300 million PCs and 100 million consumer systems by 2010.

 
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