Processor Maker Eyes x86 as 3G Chip

HONG KONG (06/08/2000) - Rise Technology Co., a creator of x86 CPUs, is developing a super-low-power version of its current processor for third-generation (3G) mobile-phone handsets that will allow mobile Internet users to take advantage of almost all Web plug-in applications, the company said this week at the Computex trade show here.

Handsets based on the x86 architecture, which is used in most PCs, will ease the transition from PC-based Internet use to Web surfing on portable handsets, because most plug-in applications are optimized for that architecture, according to Rise Chairman David Lin. He expects 3G handsets based on the x86 architecture to go on the market in the second half of 2001.

However, Rise may face an uphill battle against Intel Corp.'s low-power StrongARM RISC (reduced instruction-set computing) architecture, which is the basis of current chips for some palm-size computers and is Intel's intended technology for all handheld devices.

The next generation of wireless mobile technology, with network bandwidth as great as 384K bits per second for roving users, will open the door to combination PDA-phones that can be used for many Web tasks, Lin said.

However, the DPSs (Digital Signal Processors) used in today's cell phones may not take full advantage of plug-in applications such as Adobe Acrobat, because they are designed with x86 PC processors in mind, he said. In other types of processors, emulating the x86 consumes memory and processor cycles.

Any barrier to using all the software widgets available today through the PC browser could be a letdown for users, one analyst acknowledged.

"With 3G, whatever you can do on your PC, you should be able to do on your phone," said Sandra Ng, a telecommunications industry analyst at International Data Group Asia-Pacific, in Singapore.

On the other hand, current x86 processors would cut deeply into mobile-phone battery life, Lin added.

Rise plans to use an ultra-low-power x86 processor in a highly integrated "system on a chip" in place of the DSP-based chip sets now found in most handsets. The processor will be based on Rise's current x86, which can be tuned for speeds from 10GHz to 250GHz, according to the company. Rise has not determined what speed will be set for the ultra-low-power version.

"In the past, you didn't see the x86 platform in this space, because of power consumption. But we are breaking this power consumption barrier," Lin said.

The Rise processor will allow for three hours of talk time and 180 hours of standby time on a standard battery, he said.

Intel says that even its current StrongARM I architecture has the performance and low power consumption required for 3G handsets, though production of the handsets is still 18 months to three years away.

"In terms of ultra-low-power, we believe StrongArm is the right choice," said Stanley Huang, director of marketing and business operations for Intel Asia-Pacific, in Taipei.

Migration to the RISC technology does not pose a major hurdle in terms of software, Huang said, though he acknowledged, "thousands of applications, or even millions, are now written for the x86."

"We are working with independent software vendors to get them to port their software to the StrongArm architecture," Huang said.

Using the x86 might provide greater flexibility for developing software and services for 3G phones, because many OSes (operating systems) have already been ported to that architecture, said one engineer with six years' experience in the CPU industry, who declined to be named.

"It certainly will make it easier with the x86. With the x86, you can use Java, BeOS, Windows or Linux," and a wide range of other operating systems, he said.

"How many OSes are you actually going to get on ARM (Advanced RISC Machine)?"

The compatibility of applications themselves may not be a serious issue, however, as most will need to be rewritten for the new access devices anyway, the engineer added.

How the new platform will develop is still an open question, one that won't be decided by the traditional computer industry, he said..

"The choice will be decided by the Nokias and Ericssons of the world," he said.

Rise is in Santa Clara, Calif., and can be reached at +1-408-330-8800 or online at http://www.rise.com. Intel is also in Santa Clara, at +1-408-987-8080 or online at http://www.intel.com.

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