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The war of the hand

Posted: 03.22.04

AntTwo gigantic camps are forming for a war of the hand. One is the incumbent Nokia/Symbian-TI axis, and the other is the bullies from PC-land, Intel-Microsoft. Nowhere in the history of technology has a market exploded so fast with so much technology as has the handheld market. With PC sales slowed, Intel and Microsoft have no choice but to enter and try to take over the handheld market. But Intel and Microsoft can't be a number two or three player in a market—not out of pride, but out of investment management. The monolithic giants of the PC industry have to control the platform and dictate direction and design in order to keep their development costs under control and still provide enough fuel for their marketing machines. And the Wintel team has to change the rules to win, add features and capabilities, tie to bigger systems, and bundle programs and parts, making them look free to kill the competition. (Photo copyright Pixar, from Ants)

But TI is no lightweight and certainly no pushover. It has led the industry on getting 90-nanometer parts out (Intel is still struggling with the process). Further, the Symbian OS, largely owned by Nokia but just still open enough with support from other platform suppliers, is light years ahead of Microsoft's heavy-footed Smartphone CE OS. Also, there is a resident fear of Microsoft in the handheld industry. They don't want to be marginalized and have their platform, direction, roadmap, and most of all margins dictated by the Redmond oligarchy.

Such resistance doesn't faze the Wintel terrible twins. When they set their sights on something (and these guys have real long-range vision), and as long as the top guys (Barrett and Gates) are committed to a goal, they are relentless. Like ants, they take their casualties as merely more food for the hive and keep sending in more probes and attacks. And they can do that for a long, long time—sitting on billions in cash, both companies can make big continuing investments to realize their goals, assuming the goal is, in the eyes of these two leaders, worth it. Although both Intel and Microsoft may dream about new computers being bought by every living person on the surface of the earth every other year for the rest of recorded history, both companies realize that it might take a little longer to obtain that goal than they would like. Handhelds, on the other, er, hand, are not just explosive in their growth, they are truly ubiquitous, absolutely essential in some parts of the world—affordable, accessible in size and operation, and ultimately the only device we will need for all our communications, computing, and entertainment needs. This is not a market Intel or Microsoft will, or can afford to, walk away from or ignore.

However, Intel will need to develop communications silicon in-house to really compete with TI. The company is currently licensing its communications silicon from Analog Devices and TTP Communications. And, TI has just announced its new RF architecture to consolidate its position (see TechWatch, Feb, 23, p. 19). TI's Digital RF Processor (DRP) architecture, and their ability to integrate RF signals with digital logic (they have already integrated the RF on two Bluetooth products and a GSP/GPRS digital transceiver in TI's lab), put them way ahead on the curve.

The folks who now own this handheld market jewel won't let go of it easily, if ever. The Japanese with their huge investments in 3G and DoCoMo, the U.S. and European telcos, and the handset manufacturers won't tolerate marauders like the Wintel clan coming into their domain and trying to take over—this is going to be battle of the twin giants (often referred to as the "dark side") vs. the federation.

In the early days of this war you will hear conciliatory statements from both camps. TI says OMAP 2 processors will support all mobile operating systems. Intel says its Xscale applications processors support a wider range of operating systems (hard to figure out what is "wider" than "all").

However, in the near future very few of you will be able to sidestep this war; you will be forced to take sides. It will be a terrible conflict for companies like ATI and Nvidia, who owe their success to Wintel. Trying to extract themselves, or at least diminish the impact Wintel has on them, both companies have moved into the handheld arena. And now they will be forced to take sides. Of course, they will say they are agnostic toward the handheld processor and OS—what else could they say? And at the same time both companies will be trying to embed their cores and IP into one of those handheld processors. Issues of trade secrets and advanced design guidelines loom, and one can imagine ATI and Nvidia having to erect gated and guarded partitions within their company (as HP and Intel did with each other) to isolate and protect the secret goings on of the opposing factions of the industry.

That will be a 200-word story on the back page below the fold of the industry's newspaper. The headlines and gory photos will be of massive incursions of one force into another's territory. When you read about DoCoMo adopting Bulverde, or Smartphone, you'll know Nokia-TI are in trouble. When Vodaphone, Orange, Sprint, and TLC in China announce support for Smartphone, the battle will almost be over. Could such a thing ever happen? Not in a million years, you say? Well, Barrett and Gates aren't stupid, and they're too old to fall into infatuations. They play to win. The ants are coming, TI, and you and Nokia better seal all the cracks and lay out the poison, because these are big ants.