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A New Sweetheart on Valentines Day

On February 14th, 2011, Valentine’s Day, IBM will be debuting “Watson” as a contestant on the popular game show, Jeopardy!. Watson is a supercomputer powered by an IBM POWER7 server and is programmed to handle a massive number of tasks at rapid speeds to analyze complex language and deliver responses to inquiries such as those posed on Jeopardy!. The Watson software incorporates a number of proprietary technologies for the specialized demands of processing an enormous number of concurrent tasks and data while analyzing information in real time.

The computer has the ability to analyze the subtle meanings, irony, and riddles which accompany Jeopardy questions. It develops an answer and assesses its probability of accuracy to determine if a response is warranted. All this is performed at record speeds.

This is definitely more than just number crunching the winning moves on a chess board. The Watson software has to understand language, extract information, do it quickly and then determine a level of confidence in that response.

Although Jeopardy! presents an entertaining example of the technology, the real applications are truly awesome. The technology could be applied in areas such as healthcare, to help accurately diagnose patients. IBM suggests other applications such as improving online self-service help desks, providing tourists and citizens with specific information regarding cities and much more.

Intel Cougar Point Chipset Delayed But Not As Bad As It Looks

Today Intel announced there was a design flaw with its Cougar Point chipset. This is the series 6 chipset for the next generation Sandy Bridge based desktop and notebook PCs. The Sandy Bridge MPUs are not affected at all.

The problem was discovered in an Intel reliability lab. While testing for accelerated life time performance, it was discovered that one transistor in the SATA interface had a probability of failure within 2 to 3 years. This is the port for the slower and older SATA devices. Even if most customers may never use this port, Intel still decided to pull the chipset.

The good news is that the fix is fairly simple and is in the next to last metal layer. All wafers that have been processed up to this point are still okay. The Cougar Point chipset is manufactured on 65nm. Most of Intel’s MPUs are run on 32nm. Intel has a large amount of capacity at 65nm. Speaking with an Intel spokesperson, the company will be able to deliver the revised chipsets in a matter of weeks.

The SATA ports in question are ports 2 through 5. If a system has been delivered in which ports 2 through 5 have not been activated, this is not a problem and the system is not subject to recall. In the meantime, all other Cougar Point chipsets that have already been delivered to customers will be returned. The rollout for the Sandy Bridge systems by OEMs will be delayed about one month. These systems are likely to ship in April 2011.

Nintendo 3DS: Yes Please

I’m normally not a big fan of 3D with the gimmicky movie effects, clunky glasses, and the inevitable headache and eyestrain that comes with it. But Nintendo seems to have circumvented many of these issues with their upcoming Nintendo 3DS handheld.

At CES the N3DS was a big hit with its ability to switch between 3D and 2D, the lack of glasses, and how easy it is on the eyes (and I don’t mean the way it looks).

Admittedly, I am a bit of a fan when it comes to Nintendo. I grew up with the Nintendo Entertainment System and The Legend of Zelda. My first handheld was a Game Boy, and there is a NDS Lite sitting in my desk drawer right now.

Sony will be competing with Nintendo again this year, as they release two new handhelds. Their first handheld is the Next Generation Portable (NGP), due out by the end of 2011, though a release date hasn’t been given. Once again, Sony’s handheld will focus on power, mimicking the PSP. The NGP will be a tablet with a 5” 960x544 OLED screen. It will have a touch pad, two cameras, Wi-Fi, 3G, GPS, motion sensors, etc. It will run an ARM Cortex A9 CPU and is supposed to be as powerful as a PlayStation.

The second handheld Sony will be releasing is the PlayStation Phone (also called the Xperia Play) through Sony Ericsson. This console / phone combo will have a 4” 854x480 LCD touch screen, camera, Wi-Fi, and run on an Android platform with a 1GHz processor.

A Brazilian Semiconductor Step Forward

On January 18, 2011 CEITEC S.A., a semiconductor manufacturer in Porto Alegre, Brazil, announced the successful completion of a 12 month field trial of an RFID chip that can be implanted in cattle for positive identification. This application is important for Brazil. Beef is one of Brazil’s largest exports. The RFID chip will allow beef to continue to be shipped to Europe and Japan in the event of a mad cow disease scare in South America; because the origin and movements of cattle can be tracked, from ranch to market, providing proof that the beef is not from a suspect herd or area. The rest of the world should take notice. This is a Brazilian semiconductor, designed and fabricated in Brazil. What do you think about when you think of Brazil: inflation, F1 racing drivers, soccer, something else? Think again! Brazil is a major market. It is a country of more than 200 million people, the fifth largest country in the world. It has a stable, democratic government, and inflation has been brought under control. It is one of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India China), identified as developing countries with high growth rates and the potential to become among the world’s dominant economies in the future. Although Brazil’s GDP growth dropped in 2009, along with the rest of the world, its GDP has been growing at rates exceeding 5% annually. CEITEC S.A. is a startup IC company partially funded by the Brazilian government.

Who Needs Smart TV?

Everything these days is smart. You've got your smart phone, your smart grid, your smart car, and now your smart TV. And the question is, why? Consumers can get the same functionality with their Blu-ray players, set top boxes, and gaming consoles, etc….

And my answer, like for most technology, is why not? There is no industry standard. There is no store a consumer can go to and say, “I want to hook up my TV to the internet. What device do I need?” and not get a response along the lines of “Well, it depends on your set-up and what you want to do and how you want to do it. We have a dozen different stand-alone devices or you can use your computer or your game console….” And so on. This is confusing.

It stems from not knowing exactly what the hub is for the home entertainment system. Every company wants their own device to win this little competition, which means OEMs have no idea which device their consumers have settled on as their hub; so they might as well as add the hub capability into everything.

Industry Consolidation Continues

On the heels of the Qualcomm/Atheros acquisition, on January 10th, 2011, SMSC and Conexant Systems, Inc. announced the signing of an agreement under which SMSC will purchase Conexant in a stock and cash transaction valued at approximately $284 million.

Conexant’s imaging, audio, embedded modem and video products will be combined with SMSC's connectivity solutions targeting the computing, consumer, industrial and automotive markets. Christine King, President & Chief Executive Officer of SMSC expects the combined companies will lead to significant operating efficiencies and help position SMSC to increase earnings growth, increase R&D productivity and drive profitability and shareholder value.

2011 Semiconductor Preview

We can all agree, 2010 has been a great year:  +30% growth over 2009.  The economic recovery has been a breath of fresh air after the downturn in the world economy over the last couple years.  Semico predicts 2011 semiconductor revenues to grow less than 10% over 2010.  At first glance, this looks like bad news.  After all, a drop of almost 25 percentage points has to be bad, right?  However, in reality 2011 represents a return to a normal semiconductor sales cycle.  2010 growth was so huge because 2009 was so awful.  2011's growth will be softer because 2010 was so strong, particularly in DRAM, which grew 75% over 2009. Let's focus on:

The Nissan Leaf, Getting Charged Up For The Future!

Automotive is an important market for the semiconductor industry.  In turn the semiconductor industry has enabled car manufacturers to make major improvements in safety and performance.  Even though the number of vehicles manufactured grows by low single digits the amount of electronics per vehicle keeps increasing.  In 2008 and 2009 the automotive industry suffered severe losses, but in 2010 this market has seen a strong resurgence.  Semico believes this momentum will drive automotive semiconductor growth for the next few years.

The next stage in the evolution of the automobile is a new energy source – a renewable energy source.  The concern for air pollution and the increasing cost of fossil fuel is driving this.  Both Nissan and Chevrolet have major programs that they are launching in late 2010 and 2011, the Leaf and the Volt, respectively.  The Leaf is all electric plug-in while the Volt is an electric plug-in with additional electric generation from an in car gas powered generator.

On December 4, 2010 I had the opportunity to test drive the Nissan Leaf.  The company has a demonstration tour in the US at this time.  There was an event in Tempe, AZ during an arts festival.  My wife and I had reservations, but there was also a steady stream of people walking in to test drive.

iPad vs. the Galaxy Tab. The Winner is… Something Else?

I’ve always been unlucky when it comes to notebooks. They never last more than a few years before their motherboard explodes, usually just a few days after the warranty expires. That’s why last year I decided to get a desktop instead. It has everything I’ll ever need (hopefully) in a computer:

  • Intel i5 CPU
  • 8 GB DDR3
  • 500 GB HDD
  • Windows 7 64-bit OS
  • NVIDIA graphics card
  • Dual monitors from Acer

In fact, the only thing my desktop lacks is mobility, which is why I keep ending up staring at the iPad display in every electronics store I wander into and why I have been obsessively reading reviews for the Galaxy Tab, stalking my local Radio Shack until they finally put one on display.

Sure, the Tab only has a 7” display, but that means I can throw it in my bag and go, unlike the iPad, which will require a larger bag though it is easier to interact with. The iPad is established with people across the board praising it and remarking how it is changing the way children interact with electronics. As a bonus, the iPad has a larger marketplace and everything is plug and play. But do I want to support something that isn’t open source?

IP Subsystems: The Next IP Market Paradigm

The 3rd Party Semiconductor Intellectual Property (SIP) market has seen great innovation in the products it offers to System-on-a-Chip (SoC) designers over the last ten years. If any market segment in the semiconductor industry typifies the intense evolutionary pressures the entire electronics market has undergone, it is the 3rd Party SIP market.

Most of these evolutionary forces are driven by the need to integrate more functionality in fewer devices at the system level and in ever-smaller footprints. One method to accomplish this is through the use of 3rd Party SIP. However as design costs and time to market pressures mount on SoC designers, it is becoming more and more difficult for these designers to craft their silicon solutions in a timely and cost effective manner.

Enter the IP Subsystem, organized by system-level functionality and around its own internal interconnects, as one contiguous block accompanied by its own testbench of verification IP and small to large amount of applications software.

The IP Subsystem is the method SoC designers will employ to infuse the right level of complexity and functionality into their silicon solutions to meet quickly changing market requirements without experiencing a corresponding increase in design costs or design cycle time. Larger parts of the design can be dealt with at one time opening the door for the applications software to be written in parallel for each subsystem used in the design.