In my last post we were talking about the Mobile Revolution and the factors driving it and/or stopping it. Let’s digress from the topic of analyzing what is currently happening and suggest a way to leap ahead in mobile and wireless technology. I promise to come back to original topic again.
One of the main reasons for this revolution will be the ‘mobile platform’ technology. Most of us usually ignore the complexity of the system that lies beneath the cool interface of the phone. It’s complex, very complex! What makes mobile platforms complex and challenging is the lack of resources. Lack of power, memory, processor power & speed, die-space and flexibility!
Mobile platforms in general would mean the complete base on which the mobile phone is built upon. To take a closer look:
Mobile Platform = Hardware chip
+ Low level software such as Stack, DSP, Drivers & Middleware.
+ Interface to build mobile applications
The companies that are really doing all this dirty ‘down the surface’ work for big mobile OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) such as Nokia, Motorola, Samsung & Sony Ericsson are ‘reference mobile platforms’ makers such as TI, Freescale, Qualcomm and Infineon. So, these guys make mobile platforms that OEMs can use as references to build there phones. OEMs then put applications on top of these platforms and push it to production.
Putting it in a simple equation:
Mobile Phone =
Reference Mobile Platform (done by companies like TI & Freescale) +
User Interface (done by OEMs like Nokia & Motorola) +
Applications (done by OEMs & other third party application developers)
Everyone is trying their best to beat the competition with newer platforms and architectures. So, what do these players need today? They need flexibility – flexibility in software and in hardware.
Today, mobile phone hardware is basically ASIC, which is fast, cheap, low cost & consumes low power. But it lacks flexibility.
Let’s take a harder look at the scenario. ( I will be using a few excerpts from one of my research papers that I published & presented at GSPx 2006 International Signal Processing Conference, Santa Clara, USA. )
Upgrading the hardware of wireless communication devices such as mobile phones is one of the biggest challenges manufacturers face today. Traditionally, when a new mobile phone model with the latest technologies and features is launched by a manufacturer, competitors would be expected to launch a new phone with better technologies and features to match or outdo this latest phone as soon as possible to retain or gain market share. But, this is a huge deal and takes a lot of time, effort and money.
So what do I propose? Use Reconfigurable Hardware!
What is Reconfigurable or Re-programmable Hardware? In simple terms, a hardware that allows you to program or change its behavior with software. Sounds interesting? Read on.
Using reconfigurable hardware in mobile phones will give the much needed flexibility to launch new features almost any time, even after the phones have been deployed in the market. Currently available reconfigurable hardware such as FPGAs meet the requirements of density and speed to allow a complete mobile platform design in a single system-on-a-programmable chip, i.e. from the main processor to all the desired peripheral functions (Referenced “Realization of Wireless Multimedia Communication Systems on Reconfigurable Platforms” authored by K. Masselos, A. Pelkonen, M. Cupak. More useful related papers at: http://www.imec.be/adriatic/publications.html )
Alternatively, hybrid platforms can be developed with a combination of FPGA and ASIC in order to keep the system (partly) programmable even after it comes out of fabrication. These platforms will allow us to statically reconfigure the finished product just prior to being put into use. Dynamic reconfiguration can also be used to modify the behavior of an application system at several stages of the product’s life.
Even though FPGAs today provide the flexibility and the capability to implement complex features, they are not suited for large scale/volume products due to their high cost and limitations with respect to power consumption, speed and size. But the hybrid (heterogeneous) platforms mentioned before can still provide a good mix of flexibility and implementation efficiency in the near future.
The advent of reconfigurable hardware mobile platforms will open avenues for new technologies and applications. Manufacturers can launch new hardware features with applications as soon as they are developed and tested. The use of reconfigurable hardware also allows for updating the platform when new versions or new standards emerge. Reconfigurable hardware also introduces bug fixing capabilities for hardware systems. Moreover, end users can add new hardware features and even create hardware profiles in their phones. The dream of instantly changing the way mobile phones behave with just a press on the keypad can then be realized. A mechanism can be built to store different hardware configurations on the phone memory. These hardware features can be installed by the user whenever required. This enables the operators and handset manufacturers to have a wide range of product and service offerings to suit different budgets and customer classes. Even more exciting will be a technology that will allow users to upgrade their hardware over the air.
Not clear of what am I talking about? Let me take a crazy example (but this will make things clear).
Let’s assume, in the future, you will get a phone (made of reconfigurable hardware platform) which is empty. It has no software or hardware features. Then you decide that “Ok, I need an MP3 player, a camera, & a scanner, along with my normal phone.” You go to the vendor and she will load all these hardware features into your mobile just by connecting a wire to the PC. Wow! Now this is cool. All these days, we were loading software features to our mobiles, but now we are also loading hardware features. You didn’t have any physical hardware on your phone, but you still got what you want.
Then, after a month, you say that “Damn! I like the new Xbox and I want it on my mobile!” Now, all you do is, download the Xbox hardware feature over the mobile internet to your phone and re-load your phone hardware automatically. The next minute, you have an Xbox on your mobile and you can play your favorite game! (Currently, there is no such thing called Xbox feature for mobile phones, but I am talking about the future here!) Yes! This is possible and we will have this technology in the ‘not-so-far’ future. So, you did not have to throw away your old mobile just because it didn’t have the Xbox feature. You just upgraded it!
For folks who want to dig deeper and want to understand the technicalities, refer my research paper. Here I have outlined mechanisms to use reconfigurable hardware in mobile phones and have proposed an architecture to upgrade mobile phone hardware over the air.
So, the mobile phones of the future will call for greater flexibility and more complex features. Completely replacing the ASIC with reconfigurable hardware cannot happen overnight. But eventually, as reconfigurable hardware technology will improve and the costs come down, it will make great economic sense to replace ASIC with reconfigurable hardware to the maximum extent possible. This technology, together with the advancements in wireless technology, will help both manufacturers and consumers.
We have seen it several times in the electronics business that companies lose market share and profits to rivals just because they couldn’t launch new versions of their products in time. This happens in spite of them having the complete technology ready. But this scenario will seldom arise when reconfigurable hardware is used in products like mobile phones.
Manufacturers need not wait for the launch of the next product. They can just upgrade the reconfigurable hardware with the latest features over the air for all the users, if needed. The advantage for the user is that the newest versions can always be used and that the mobile handset is not outdated soon. The advantage for manufacturers is that they can make profits by launching latest versions as quickly as possible to match rival products, helping them retain or gain market share. Reconfigurable hardware also introduces bug fixing capabilities for hardware systems. With the help of advancements in wireless technology, all these services can be done over the air. Not only can new features be added to mobile handsets over the air but handsets can also be debugged over the air to fix hardware and software bugs.
This technology will open up a huge market for “On-Demand” hardware feature downloads over the air. Of course, making this a reality will require investments in research, time and deployment. But it will be worth the investment. The experience end users will gain through this technology will be nothing short of magical. The user can add new hardware features and even create hardware profiles in his phone, with the ability to change the behavior of the phone on the fly. With the ability to partially reconfigure and to dynamically share the reconfigurable hardware, hardware profiles can even be customized to add the required features to the available reconfigurable hardware resources. More generic mobile handsets can then be sold in the market, giving the choice to the user to add the features that she desires or requires the most. Of course, the user can change the features over the air as and when she wants to.
Sounds like a perfect platform to cater to the demands of the Mobile Revolution? Yes, I bet! Mobile will be magical!
Suggestions/additions to this post are always welcome!