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The Ubiquitous Internet: Anywhere, Anytime, Any Device


Madanmohan Rao reports from the Embedded Devices Summit in Taiwan



As the wave of Internet diffusion extends from the first and second phases of mainframes and PCs to the third phase - consumer devices - new applications are emerging for business and consumer users and their supporting hardware, software and communications sectors.


The next generation Internet is expected to seamlessly link together not just networks and people but a staggering array of devices each with embedded Internet connectivity: PDAs, laptops, cellphones, headsets, cordless phones, MP3 players, joysticks, fingerprint scanners, medical instruments, point of sale (POS) scanners, DVDs, pen computers, wireless modems, digital still cameras, Webcams, e-books, TV set-top boxes, and even fridges and microwave ovens.


Applications will include not just activities like sharing of home videos via the Net, but monitoring alarm systems in offices, instrumentation for industrial applications, monitoring of goods in supply chains, inventory updates for mobile sales forces, support information for field technicians, wireless Internet access in hotel rooms, headsets for museum visitors, and automated airport check-in by travelers.


Engineers, manufacturers, designers, entrepreneurs, systems integrators and consultants gathered in Taipei recently for the Embedded Systems Asia conference (www.iictaipei.com) hosted by Hongkong-based media group Global Sources (www.globalsources.com).


We have gone from an era of "one machine many users" (mainframes) to "one machine one user" (PCs) - and are now entering the world of "many machines one user" (embedded devices), said Colin Yen, technical marketing manager at Mentor Graphics.


International Data Corporation predicts that by year 2002, half of all Internet accesses will be via wireless devices. Over 25 per cent of broadband households in the U.S. will have a residential gateway by 2003, according to the Yankee Group; the market for home networking products will cross the billion dollar mark next year.


Numerous home networking kits are already available, based on Ethernet, phone wiring (HomePNA, 3Com's HomeConnect, Intel's AnyPoint), powerlines (HomePlug Powerline Alliance, backed by3Com, Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, AMD and Radio Shack), and wireless platforms (such as Dell 4800LT, HomeRF).

"Home networking is a nascent but fast-expanding market. Its turnover will increase from US$1.8 billion in 2001 to over US$6 billion in three years," said Kirtimaya Varma, associate editor of "Electronic Engineering Times - Asia."


New kinds of technologies are being developed that we cannot even foresee today, and there are no clear winners; there is also not enough consensus on processors, standards and specifications, said Varma; this will create teething problems for consumers and manufacturers.


The stakes are high in this Brave New Connected World - but it faces protocol and architecture standardization challenges much more severe than the days of the early PC and Web.


Some analysts even joke that the competing vendors seem as if they are participating in a 100-metre dash while putting on their shorts and shoes at the same time.


Other systemic issues to tackle include on-board power-sensitive design techniques, space optimization, programmable logic devices, high-resolution displays, system on chip (SoC) circuitry, and upstream/downstream migration to 'soft silicon.'


The growth of Internet-embedded appliances is expected to be one of the most dynamic growth markets in the field of digital electronics and networked systems in this decade. But networking challenges for inter-device operability arise at numerous levels, ranging from the physical and data layers to network inter-connections and applications.


Numerous networking companies are developing solutions, accordingly, that tend to fall into two categories: those that require wireline connections (such as IEEE 1394 and Universal Serial Bus) and those that are wireless (eg. Bluetooth, HomeRF).


Consumer electronics products based on the IEEE 1394 standard allow Webcams, tape drives, digital TVs, scanners and printers to instantly plug in to each other with or without an intermediary PC.


IEEE 1394 will be increasingly adopted in the automobile environment and industrial applications, and wireless versions are also being worked on, according to Paul Hsu, chairman of the 1394 Trade Association in Taiwan. He predicts a rapid growth in the PC camera market, and increasing consumer demand for larger video and image files for online gaming.


Bluetooth has lots of potential applicability in the "last yard" for personal area networks (PANs). It is estimated that by 2005, Bluetooth will be a built-in feature for more than 600 million products worldwide, manufactured by companies like Sony, Ericsson, Toshiba and Motorola. By 2003, the Bluetooth market is expected to be worth US$5 billion.


"Bluetooth chip sets are being manufactured by CSR, Silicon Wave, Philips, Infineon, and Zeevo. Another option is to use Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC) based on intellectually property licensed from companies like NewLogic, Parthus and Tality," said Yan Siang Goh, marketing engineer at Austria-based NewLogic Technologies.


Yamaha, the world leader in electronic musical instruments, has formed an alliance with NewLogic to add Bluetooth functionality to its products - this is expected to reduce the use of cables between musical instruments, sound and stage equipment.


Texas Instruments is working on contact-based and contactless smart card devices such as CardBus and CardBay, extending the capability of PCMCIA  (PC Memory Card International Association, founded in 1989); these can be used by GPRS wireless networks.


ARM Technologies, a leading player in cellphone chipsets, is developing a Java-enabled architecture called Jazelle for 3G handsets which can support video streaming. "New levels of Java performance will become more and more important in the wireless world," according to Philip Lu, senior engineer at ARM in Taipei.


"For the handheld Internet to succeed, it needs software, and Java holds great promise here. Java-specific processors and co-processors can help improve device performance," according to Mukesh Patel, CEO of Nazomi Communications in California.


Art & Logic, a provider of embedded Internet engineering services, and Ubicom, a supplier of Internet processors, have developed a Java-based control interface offering OEMs flexibility by allowing design teams to change the control software on embedded systems during development.

California-based Integrated Device Technologies (www.idt.com) expects the market for home networking to grow along wireline-based technologies in the U.S. (where most rooms in homes have phone wires) and wireless technologies in Europe. IBM and National Semiconductor recently announced an alliance for home gateways.


Multiple PCs in the family, laptops for office staff working at home, Internet-enabled entertainment devices (like MP3 players), and PDAs will fuel the home networking and residential gateways market; VPNs, input/output devices and the need for shared Internet access from office PCs will fuel similar networking markets in the SME/SOHO segment.


Companies like VenturCom have developed a real-time extension (RTX) to help developers work on Windows NT/2000 applications for embedded applications. Lineo has customized open source Linux for embedded systems via its Embedix range of products. Other players in embedded Linux include Wind River Systems, TimeSys, Red Hat, MontaVista, Lynx Real-Time Systems, Axis Communications and Lynuxworks. Norwegian company Trolltech is targeting cross-platform C++ GUI application development.

MP3 players, first devised in 1998, can be used for various fields like language self-learning aids, Internet broadcasts, and personal entertainment; they are now manufactured by Samsung, Creative Lab, RCA, Sanyo, and Diamond Multimedia. These devices, unlike cassette and CD players, are more light-weight, skip-proof, vibration free (due to absence of motors), offer near-CD quality sound, consume less power, and - most importantly -- can download music from the vast repositories on the Web.


"Annual sales of MP3 players may cross the US$1 billion mark in the U.S. next year and will also increase in Asia, despite unresolved legal issues," according to Guy Cheung, design manager at ON Semiconductor in Hong Kong; design considerations for such devices include effective power management and use of flash memory (non-volatile programmable memory chips).


With rapidly increasing processor speeds, broadband transmission bandwidths, and user expectations of rich multimedia experiences, radio transmission topics like signal integrity are creeping into the domain of digital chip design as well.


"We have crossed a performance threshold that means, in effect, almost every design is a high-speed design. Circuit-board bus cycle times are up to a thousand times faster than they were 20 years ago," according to Davis Chen, engineering manager at Tektronix in the U.S.


Internet-based simulations and virtual testing methods are being increasingly used by chip and device designers such as SweetCircuits and Xilinx. Web-enabled workflow design is being adopted by numerous hardware manufacturers to systematize internal production and testing. Supply chain management (SCM) principles integrating Web platforms and proprietary ERP systems are also being adopted by the semiconductor industry, especially in design chains and foundry players.


IBM Microelectronics has developed an online chip design system for its ASIC customers, which lets users work with IBM engineers in a real-time Web-based collaborative environment. Web-based design automation tools for ICs are already being used by Barcelona Design Systems, which lets companies design their own op amps via its website (www.barcelonadesign.com). IC design portals have also been launched, such as SiliconX.com.

The growth of the Internet along with embedded devices is rapidly spurring two key components: security chips and smart chips.

Increased VPN usage and B2B e-commerce transactions are expanding the market for ICs focused exclusively on security (such as SSL accelerators), made by companies like Hifn, Broadcom and Chrysalis. Gartner expects the Internet encryption chip market to be worth $750 million by 2004.

BioId America is developing biometric solutions to meet the growing needs of secure Internet transactions from devices using smart cards. The International Biometrics Group predicts that the global biometric market could generate $1.1 billion in revenue in 2003, up from $340 million in 2000.

Over 1.8 billion smart cards were used globally last year, largely in Europe. Schlumberger predicts a 50 percent growth rate in U.S. consumption of smart cards over the next three years, driven by Visa and Mastercard. Visa reportedly expects that more than half of all Visa cards by 2010 will be smart cards; Mastercard expects that half of all Mastercard transactions will be made via online transactions with smart cards by 2005. Players in the smart card space include Sun Microsystems' Java Card, Multos and Mondex.

Other developments are happening on the modem front. ITU V.92, the new dialup modem specification from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), offers features like Modem-on-Hold (allowing online users to receive incoming calls and put the Internet connection on hold), faster upload speeds, and memorization of phone line characteristics for quicker repeat connections.


Motorola's V.92 SM56 PCI II modem is targeting this market; the company is also working on very high speed digital signal processors for 3G phones. Startups like Luxxon are developing MPEG-4 video processors for 3G cellular phones.

The growth of this embedded device wave has serious implications for companies in countries like Taiwan, which have so far excelled in the PC wave of the Internet; many are now restructuring and redesigning to meet these new requirements, especially in the wake of the current global economic slowdown and leveling off in the PC sector.


Taiwanese companies have built formidable capacity and competence in three key hardware areas: PC devices, semiconductor foundries, and chip design. Taiwanese companies reportedly make 53 percent of the world's laptops, 25 percent of its desktops, and an even larger percentage of peripheral products, like scanners, monitors and keyboards.


Taiwanese manufacturers build many of the PCs branded by U.S. companies like Dell, Compaq and Gateway. Taiwan's printed circuit board industry ranks third largest in the world, after the U.S. and Japan, accounting for about a tenth of global market share.


Taiwanese companies already active in wireless PC products include Leichu (wireless LANs) and Micron Design Technology (wireless peripherals).

Established in 1976, Taiwan-based Acer has become world's third largest PC maker, offering a broad range of PC products from industry-leading high-end PC servers and multimedia desktop computers to notebooks, computer peripherals and components. Stan Shih, Chairman and CEO of the Acer Group, was selected amongst the top 25 of Asia's Digital Elite by Asiaweek magazine last year.


Acer is also active in the Internet enabling sector, via Internet-ready mobile phones, projectors, and e-business solutions. It employs 35,000 people in 232 enterprises spanning 41 countries worldwide, supporting dealers and distributors in over 100 nations. Acer Group revenues were US$9.9 billion in 2000. Acer has set up a research center in Shanghai; other computer firms like Mitac and First have set foot in mainland China as well.


D-Link, another Taiwanese company, is also an active player in the network peripherals market.


Division of labour in the hardware industry has created "fab" (silicon fabricator) companies on the one hand and "fabless" chip designers on the other (such as Xilinx, Altera, Cirrus Logic, Qualcomm, Broadcom). The U.S. and Taiwan are the largest and second largest concentration areas for the fabless industry.


Two of Taiwan's largest semiconductor foundries -- Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC) -- are also among the largest IC fabs in the world.


Founded in 1987, TSMC was a pioneer in the semiconductor dedicated foundry industry, and posted annual sales of US$5.3 billion in 2000. Its senior vice president for research and development, Shang-Yi Chiang, was chosen this year as one of the 50 "Stars of Asia" by Business Week magazine.


UMC, the world's second-largest microchip foundry, is expanding its global manufacturing base by setting up fabs for 300 millimetre wafers in Singapore and Japan as well; one of its alliance partners is setting up operations in mainland China. Initial production capacity in its fabs in the southern industrial park of Taiwan is expected to reach 5,000 to 7,000 wafers per month by the end of the year.


UMC's future plans include meeting customer demands of lower process geometries (13 microns). Its customers include San Jose-based Xilinx, the biggest producer of programmable semiconductors.


But UMC is now running at only 70 per cent of its total production capacity, and expects to see a recovery in the chip industry only in the middle of 2002, buoyed in part by a demand for 2.5G and 3G wireless Internet services as well as PDAs.


UMC is focusing on the Net not just in its growing wireless incarnation, but also as a platform for e-business. "We are building a knowledge management system leveraging our Intranet, and are using the Web to improve B2B functionality for our partners around the world," said Yew Yu, head of information services at UMC.


Dataquest predicts that the total revenue generated by all semiconductor companies around the world is estimated to grow by an average of 20% a year during 1999-2003; the figure for providers of wafer foundry services is 28%.


U.S.-headquartered Intel recently signed an MoU with Taiwanese research units for developing advanced wireless devices like smartphones, based on its personal Internet client architecture.

Many Taiwanese companies are keeping their control and design functions in Taiwan, but shifting manufacturing to mainland China. Numerous studies reveal that 8 out of 10 Taiwanese scanners, a quarter of desktop PCs, and nearly half the monitors, are assembled in the mainland. Hou Hai, the world's leading PC connector producer, owns two plants in mainland China in Shenzhen and Guangdong.


Slightly smaller than the Netherlands in size, Taiwan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Over a third of Taiwan's citizens - and more than half of the residents of the capital city Taipei - are Internet users, according to recent surveys.


But Taiwan is facing tough challenges today: scarce and expensive land, and a potential shortfall of qualified engineers (its universities turn out 4,000 engineers a year, versus 145,000 in China).


Some analysts maintain that though China lags behind Taiwan in semiconductor industry knowledge and skills by 5 to 10 years, it will eventually catch up and become a major global player in the PC and wireless device industry - throwing in an interesting complicated twist to frosty U.S.-China political relations and to the complex web of Sino-Taiwanese diplomacy.

The fastest-growing hardware and software areas are both related to the Internet, and Taiwan is thus seeking to strengthen ties with companies in other parts of the world like India.


Other global players are already teaming up with Indian software companies for m-space projects. For instance, Lucent Technologies and Asia Cybernet have announced plans to collaborate on mobile Internet applications for service providers.

Lara Networks, a U.S.-based developer of network application processors, announced the launch of a design centre in Bangalore; so has Wind River Systems.

Pre-dating the Indo-U.S. technology/finance bridges in the software sector between Silicon Valley in the U.S. and Indian cities like Bangalore, the overseas Taiwanese network forged close links between the U.S. and Taiwan in the 1970s and 80s.


Networks like TANet (Taiwan Academic Network) help build high-speed Internet connections for collaboration between academics in Taiwan and the U.S.; most university faculty in Taiwan possess advanced degrees from U.S. institutions, and a large faculty population in U.S. technology institutions is of Taiwanese origin.


"Taiwan's key strengths are our highly educated workforce, large reserves of capital for investment in R&D and industry, and the hardworking nature and discipline of our people," says Jer-Nan Juang, director of Taiwan's National Centre for High Performance Computing in the industrial province of Hsin-Chu.


"Taiwan will continue to be a dynamic high-voltage research and production centre in the Asia Pacific," Juang says.



The writer can be reached at madan@techsparks.com


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