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Kirt's Cogitations™ #192

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When is a Phone Not a Phone?

Nokia has a slogan for their model 6255i 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.

The company 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 the battery.

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.

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