When is a Phone
Not a Phone?
These original Kirt's Cogitations™ may be reproduced (no more than
5, please) provided proper credit is given to me, Kirt Blattenberger.
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Cog·i·ta·tion [koj-i-tey'-shun] – noun: Concerted thought or
reflection; meditation; contemplation.
Kirt [kert] – proper noun: RF Cafe webmaster.
Nokia has a slogan for their model
phone that captures completely the spirit of the multifunctional entity
that has become today's typical cellphone: "It's only a phone when you
want it to be." Contained within a 3.44" x 1.86" x 1.02", 4.4 ounce
package is an MP3 player, a 640x480 pixel camera with a built-in LED
flash, Bluetooth and infrared connectivity, a voice and video recorder,
two full-color LCDs, high-speed Internet capability, a 1070 mAh Li-Ion
battery, more software than early PCs ever ran, an FM stereo radio,
and a USB data port. Oh, and it is also a clamshell-style phone, by
the way, in case you need to place or receive a call when not utilizing
the other functions.
Other phones by all the major manufacturers
go even farther in integration by including GPS for both E911 and mapping
functions, RFID, wireless LAN (usually 802.11b), touch screen input,
an electronic compass (not via GPS, but with an ingenious ASIC), a heart
rate monitor, and audio distress signaling for downed users. New features
are being added all the time. To make room for all the non-phone gizmos,
enormous pressure is placed on RFIC design houses to reduce the real
estate consumed by the "black magic" parts, and at the same time reduce
the current consumption so that the rail commuter can play Tetris for
the entire one-hour metro ride and still have plenty of juice left to
handle business and personal calls the entire day.
I work for designs and manufactures RFIC components for phones, WLAN,
base stations, Bluetooth devices, and other wireless applications. Part
of my job as an application engineer involves researching how our parts
are implemented in many different products, by many different OEMs,
to assist the design engineering guys (and gals) in their effort both
to improve current products and to determine what is needed in the future.
Today's fiercely competitive global marketplace leaves little room for
error and is totally unforgiving of broken promises. If you tell an
OEM that your device will draw "x" current at "y" power out, it had
better not consume a single microamp more or it could be a long time
before any of your company's parts are designed into that customer's
product line. Many OEMs base their choice of components almost entirely
on current consumption as long as the other bothersome specs like spectral
mask are also met. I predict that within two years there will be a requirement
that all RFICs actually supply energy back into the system to help recharge
Size is quite another issue. As with current consumption,
RFIC components would ideally occupy a negative volume so that placing
them on the PCB actually frees up space for a second 512 MB MMC (multimedia
card) slot or a 10 GB micro HDD (hard disk drive) to store more songs
for the MP3 player. Anyone who has followed the miniaturization of electronics
components over the last two decades knows the Herculean efforts made
to evolve from leaded devices to leadless surface-mount packages that
continually shrunk down in size until the package and leadframes themselves
could no longer be tolerated and the bare die became the package in
a flip-chip format where the die is soldered upside-down onto a substrate.
Even that was not small enough, so now we have die that have been thinned
to ridiculously small thicknesses and stacked on top of each other -
sometimes as many as three high. What's next - atom-sized ICs?
As a matter of fact, that is what is coming next. Nanotechnology
is progressing at a blazing speed and has already produced switches
and gain blocks on a scale of a handful of atoms. A couple nano-scale
devices have appeared in the Cool Pic images that illustrate the work
done for mechanical purposes. MEMS (micro electromechanical systems)
components are already available commercially for both RF and optical
switches, and filters are being developed that outperform SAW and BAW
implementations in size, power handling and frequency response. Even
atom-scale computers are being built using a nebulous concept of "Qbits"
(quantum bits) that can assume more than one value based on a probability
distribution function. In the not-too-distant future, you can expect
to see these not-too-long-ago unfathomable parts appear in not just
cellphones, but in wristwatches, implantable medical devices, sensors
for transportation systems, swing-improving golf clubs, security systems,
satellite constellations comprised of thousands of micro orbs - maybe
even a better fully-motorized, self-adjusting tennis shoe from Nike.
It is tempting to lament having been born so many years ago (47
plus some change) that I will miss out on what will certainly be a head-spinning
advance in these and other technologies, but then I have to keep in
mind that less than a month after I first saw the light of day in 1958,
Mr. Jack Kilby was just conceiving of the integrated circuit while working
at Texas Instruments. I have enjoyed the benefits of what would be considered
head-spinning advances in technology by my predecessors. As the world's
population grows, along with the unfortunate suffering of many comes
an ever-increasing number of people working to solve long-standing problems
and dream up new ideas. "Necessity is the mother of invention," as the
saying goes, and if the free market deems smaller, more efficient parts
necessary to satisfy demand, then we have a duty to invent them without
complaining to maintain the rate of advancement.