Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul loves his gPhone

Qualcomm was one of the major cosponsors of Google’s Open Handset Alliance when it was announced last November. Qualcomm had not previously joined other mobile phone Linux efforts, such as LiMo (driven by Vodafone) and LiPS (once driven by France’s Orange).

This week, CEO Paul Jacobs was all smiles with the announcement of the T-Mobile G1, with Google’s Android OS and a Qualcomm MSM7201A processor. Of course, Taiwanese maker HTC has been a longtime and loyal buyer of Qualcomm chips. HTC exactly fits Qualcomm’s business model, which allows new (and presumably less capable) entrants to compete with large vertically integrated incumbents.

Google leverages the same market entry process. HTC doesn’t have the ability to design its own smartphone architecture to compete with the iPhone or Blackberry or various Nokia smartphones. Instead, it has produced probably the widest range of Windows Mobile devices. With the long-rumored G1, HTC is demonstrating its commitment to an open innovation sourcing of technology rather than to Microsoft per se.

Both firms thus have an interest in empowering new entrants, thus increasing handset competition and reducing the power of incumbents. Otherwise, their business objectives are quite divergent.

Google wants its software component to be a commodity so it can make money on another part of the ecosystem, i.e. ad-supported web applications. Qualcomm (like Microsoft) has spent billions on component R&D so it can make money selling those components.

And, in fact, Google has made sure that Qualcomm will not have an exclusive role in supplying Android hardware components. Google wants to commoditize the entire mobile Internet stack, except of course for its near-monopoly on key web applications. So Android adoption is a clear win for Google but has risks for Qualcomm.

One interesting opportunity, not yet tapped, is when will there be a CDMA phone enabled by Android. RIM is selling its Blackberry to all carriers, but otherwise the most exciting smartphones are GSM only: iPhone with AT&T, the G1 (so far) with T-Mobile, and Nokia (perhaps someday) selling to both.

The OHA was launched last November with the two weakest US carriers — T-mobile and Sprint, with the two major US carriers holding out. A month later Verizon also joined in, so three of the four Big Four (and both of the CDMA carriers) are in OHA.

Whatever the Android platform’s pizzaz relative to the iPhone, in the CDMA world it would be a dramatic step forward except for the most hardened Crackberry addict. A quick Google search suggest that all has been quiet since last December on what Verizon plans, although there’s been considerable speculation about Sprint’s needs and hopes to ship an Android phone.

As a loyal Sprint customer going back to more than a decade (and Sprint's cooperation with Cox to deploy CDMA in San Diego), there’s a huge pent-up demand for a good smartphone on their network Will it make it in time for Christmas? I guess we’ll find out soon.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Changing the nature of sound

Through an odd set of coincidences, in the last 12 hours I read about two US tech companies that appear to have used digital communications technology to differentiate themselves. The common thread is their use of digital signal processing in portable handheld device to make sound better — possibly better than the original. Although neither of these is a San Diego firm, they both fit the broad brushes of the digitalization of communications that I’ve been studying in our planned book.

Since I bought my first audio cassette deck as a college student, the goal was to find a recording device that minimized the damage done in the recording process, i.e. the new noise that was allowed to intrude into the analog signal. I owned three cassette decks connected to my stereo from 1975 until I had enough CDs to give up on cassettes during the early 1990s.

While DAT and minidiscs were around since the 1980s, I bought my first digital recorder to record interviews replacing a series of portable cassette recorders the size of a paperback book. The Olympus DM-1 was among the earliest of the Olympus digital recorders, whose main attraction (at least for me) the ability to electronically back up research interviews.

But this morning I saw a link to the Zoom H2, a well-reviewed digital recorder from 26-year-old Samson Technologies. The H2 is a low-cost, miniature version of its earlier Zoom H4 portable digital recording studio.

What I thought was clever about the H2 was not the four-track recording for garage bands, but the use of the DSP and the four mics to electronically create different microphone response patterns — two different simulated stereo cardioid patterns, plus a symmetric omnidirectional patterns. Once upon a time we would buy different mics for different goals, but now (as with synthesized guitar amps) this can all be done electronically.

For my use in interviews (as opposed to recording my “band”), what surprised me was that they didn’t simulate a highly directional mic pattern, but maybe that’s a firmware upgrade. Still, with a street price of $170 it’s far more recorder at less money than what I bought five years ago from Olympus.

The earlier notice was one of those obscure, self-promoting trade magazine articles, in this case in IEEE Computer. The article by Lloyd Watts, founder/CTO of Audience Inc., talked about the challenges of reducing three different types of background noise you hear from cellphone callers. As with the H2, the solution combines multiple mics, a DSP and clever algorithms.

While Audience is interested in selling a specific chip (the Audience Voice Processor), the broader implication is that the ITU’s P.835 standard for noise reduction now accurately tests for the challenges of stationary, quasistationary and nonstationary noise sources. Cellphones reflecting this improved sound fidelity are shipping in Japan and Korea, and presumably will spread more broadly over the next few years.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Nokia re-enters CDMA market

After settling its licensing dispute with Qualcomm, Nokia has re-entered the North American CDMA market with its new phone, the Nokia 6205 being sold by Verizon. The phone was actually introduced in June as a Batman movie tie in.

Because Nokia doesn’t know how to make CDMA phones any more, it outsourced design of the Nokia 6205 to an offshore ODM. speculates the phone was made by TechFaith, a Qualcomm- and Intel-backed startup that also makes phones for Kyocera and NEC.

It seems like a small scale entry by Nokia, which forecast declining market share in 2008 as it seeks to preserve margins in the face of brutal price cutting by rivals. The risk is that Nokia — which is a premium brand in Europe — will signify a low-quality, low-end product in the US, as it did 20 years ago when it was the Radio Schak house brand.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

All Linkabit founders get their National Medal

Later this month, two-thirds of the Linkabit founders will receive a National Medal of Science. With an earlier award, this means all three founders will have received one of the National Medals for lifetime achievement.

Andrew Viterbi will be among eight honorees scheduled to receive the award Sept. 29 in a White House ceremony with President Bush. Viterbi, the former JPL researcher and UCLA and UCSD professor, is of course the inventor of the Viterbi algorithm, widely used in all digital cellphones. He also advanced digital satellite communications as a co-founder and CTO of Linkabit and Qualcomm. He retired from Qualcomm in 2000, and since then has invested in startup companies through The Viterbi Group.

Also receiving a medal will be Leonard Kleinrock, the UCLA professor who was a cofounder and associated with Linkabit for several months when it was founded in 1968. Instead, he went back to working on his packet switching MIT doctoral thesis to ARPA secure routing requirements. This included getting the UCLA interface message processor (IMP) up and running, and using it to send the first e-mail message in October 1969.

The two men join the best known Linkabit (and Qualcomm) founder, who received the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 1994.

Although the award nominations are administered by the National Science Foundation, sometimes there are political overtones to presidential awards in the sciences and arts. Irwin and Joan Jacobs have been major contributors to Democrat candidates and causes at the national level (including Bill Clinton), even if their San Diego political involvement was aligned against teachers and pro-reform education candidates aligned with then-SDUSD superintendent (and certified Friend of Bill) Alan Bersin.

Viterbi’s honor by Bush is certainly not for his fundraising prowess. Campaign reports as of Sept. 1 show that since 2000, Viterbi has given slightly more than $100,000 to Democrat (mainly Senate) candidates and associated committees. The notable exception of Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who’s facing a GOP primary challenge prior to his general election challenge by comedian Al Franken. Kleinrock has only one $500 contribution to the 2006 Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Certainly all three men had already proven that they deserve this national recognition, including being named Fellows of the IEEE and elected members of the National Academy of Engineering. Viterbi and Kleinrock in particular have received numerous awards for technical achievement in communications engineering, including the Marconi Prize.