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Video Trumps Voice In Future Phones

Mobile-phone design is in the middle of a dizzying switcheroo. A state-of-the-art phone isn't really a phone anymore-it's a 5-megapixel digital camera, a slim digital camcorder or a high-quality portable music player that tucks in a phone as a value-added feature.

LAS VEGAS — Mobile-phone design is in the middle of a dizzying switcheroo. A state-of-the-art phone isn't really a phone anymore-it's a 5-megapixel digital camera, a slim digital camcorder or a high-quality portable music player that tucks in a phone as a value-added feature.

Such designs were everywhere in evidence at the Consumer Electronics Show here earlier this month. Samsung Electronics, for example, showed an array of portable audio/video hybrids featuring cell phone capability. Similarly, Sony-Ericsson exhibited a camera phone that was less a handset with an added camera feature than a Sony digital still camera that had morphed into a phone.

Cell phones are growing into one of the most important platforms for consumer ICs, said Leon Husson, executive vice president for the consumer businesses at Philips Semiconductors. Husson predicted that within 10 years, phones-not TV sets-will consume most of the consumer IC group's TV chips.

The numbers tell the tale. Some 200 million to 250 million TV sets are sold annually worldwide, but over the coming decade, 600 million cell phones will be sold per year, Husson said. Assuming that 50 percent of them come with a TV capability, that's 300 million handsets.

In Husson's view, advanced communication features "will become a commodity where we can do very little to differentiate," whereas "multimedia features can truly differentiate one phone from another."

Such systems will fuel a growing demand for billions of digital photos that can be easily uploaded onto a living room TV, said Vyomeshi Joshi, senior vice president for printing, imaging and consumer electronics businesses at Hewlett-Packard Co.

That will require engineers to design a video output capability into every camera phone, said Philips' Husson. "It can be composite video, USB 2.0, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi." All told, he said, "We see it [the cell phone] providing a huge opportunity where we can sell another piece of our silicon."

Smarter DSPs
The industry also anticipates that consumers will soon demand an easy way to transfer content from a living-room PVR to their mobile handsets, or to download music from a cell phone to the hi-fi system back home. Jeremiah Golston, chief technology officer for DSP streaming media at Texas Instruments Inc., said the next spin on DSPs-chips that will be designed into media centers or set-tops in 18 months-will not only need to decode audio/video streams but will also have to encode in formats appropriate to individual consumer devices in the home.

Such DSPs should have enough intelligence to change frame rates or resolution automatically to match the end product's capability. "HD [high-definition] video recorded into a PVR, for example, should be transcoded and downscaled, while eliminating certain functions such as trick plays from the bit stream so that the content can be viewed on a wireless handheld device without consuming too much power," Golston said.

Philips' Husson makes no secret of his excitement over the TV-on-mobile market opportunity. A trial under way in Berlin involving Philips, Nokia, Vodafone and Universal Studios Networks Germany is already proving the popularity of handset TV. "Consumers really like it," Husson said. Remaining challenges, however, include implementing "a global digital TV feature onto a global phone," he said. "You need a global TV feature in the mobile phone so that you can tune into a TV on your handset wherever you go."

From the semiconductor vendor's point of view, that means the software in the handset chip must deal with different global digital TV standards.

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