NEC, Matsushita plan dual-processor 3G phones

The time may soon come when your cell phone has more processors than your personal computer. NEC Corp., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. and Matsushita Communication Industrial Co. Ltd. have decided to employ two microprocessors in 3G (third-generation) cellular telephone handsets that are expected to start hitting the market within the next 12 months, they said Thursday.

The dual-processors are unlikely to outclass personal computers in terms of power, but the companies' decision does highlight the growing complexity of handsets and the applications that they run.

Handsets began evolving beyond basic telephony functions around five years ago, when companies experimented with simple games, although it wasn't until the launch of wireless Internet services that the complexity began rising fast. Today's top-of-the-range 2G handsets can run Java applets and, most recently, have begun to sport digital still cameras and GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers.

3G handsets, several of which are already on sale in Japan, are even more complex, with video conferencing and video-on-demand thrown in, so it's no surprise that two processors will be used, said Akiko Shikimori, a spokeswoman for NEC.

"For 3G and even 2.5G handsets, the software is so huge. If it is one CPU (central processing unit), the performance is limited but we have two CPUs so the performance is better," she said.

Under the architecture unveiled Thursday by the two Matsushita companies and NEC, one processor, the C-CPU, will be used to handle the communication protocols while the other, the A-CPU, is used to run applications such as wireless Internet browsing, video conferencing and phone book management.

NEC has already embraced the idea and is using two processors in its handsets for NTT DoCoMo Inc.'s 3G W-CDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) network that began commercial service in October 2001. The company's N2001 and N2002 handsets use Intel Corp.'s StrongArm as the application processor and one of NEC's VR series chips as the communications processor, and are based on a basic version of what was announced Thursday, said Shikimori.

Beyond the better performance, there are other advantages too, the companies said.

The platform will be offered to companies that do not posses the technology to design 3G cell phones. The separation of processor functions will help these customers differentiate their products, said Shikimori, because the finished platform will enable designers to chose from a number of different brands of processor for each CPU. At present, Agere Systems Inc. and Texas Instruments Inc. are working with the three companies on prototypes.

The outline architecture is the result of six months of work between the three companies, which are Japan's top cellular handset makers. In August last year they announced plans to work together on the design and development of 3G handsets, partly in an attempt to replicate overseas the success they have enjoyed in the domestic market.