Texas Instruments (TXN) is in the cell phone world what Intel (INTC) is in PCs – the largest supplier of the chips that form the brains of the device. (Like Intel, TI has plenty of competition; Qualcomm (QCOM) is a strong number two.) As the global market for wireless devices grows, Texas Instruments's technology vision will shape the way our devices function and our businesses run.
I caught up with Texas Instruments Chief Technology Officer Hans Stork to chat about the company's vision for mobile and device technology, and where his researchers are looking to push boundaries.
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To learn his take on chips powered by the human body, the influence of emerging markets, and what chip equipment makers should do better, check out the edited IM transcript below.
Fortt: So let me start with a general question. You're already, no doubt, designing the chips that will be in mobile devices five years from now. What are your assumptions about what our mobile life will be like, and how is that different from how things are today?
Stork: Mobile life will be more complete, meaning that we’ll have more video, higher resolution, and a better real-time experience.
Fortt: What about all the different wireless standards? Will we still need to think about whether a phone is GSM, CDMA, or something else?
Stork: Those users pushing the edge will have to, and will know what they are doing. Many more, hopefully most, will be able to seamlessly move between standards without having to know about their existence.
Fortt: I think you've said in the past that it can be prohibitively expensive for Texas Instruments to test out new ideas for chip designs. But if cost were not an issue at all, what are some of the areas TI would like to do more exploratory research?
Stork: One of the new areas of application interest for TI is medical applications of electronics. Ultra low power is a technology angle that is of very high value there. This could drive some new design approaches.
Fortt: Why is ultra low power particularly interesting?
Stork: Let me start with pointing out that power correlates well with cost in general. Also, if you have a device that’s going to be implanted in the body, portability with "lifetime" operation is often a desired if not essential feature. Scavenging energy from the body would be very helpful to meet such goals. And it is possible in such applications, since duty cycles are often extremely low.
Fortt: Are you talking about implanted devices that can, themselves, be powered by the human body?
Stork: It means that for example thermal energy or vibrational energy of the body can be translated into enough electrical energy to power a device. Like a watch.
Fortt: Wow. Are you already at the point where you're experimenting with that technology in the labs? Forgive my ignorance, but I had never heard that technology was on the horizon.
Stork: At this time phase we are working with universities and getting ready to bring some of this to the customer level where they can start experimenting.
Fortt: Interesting. Back to phones for a moment. We're seeing some emerging markets, particularly China and India, bursting onto the mobile scene in a big way; I'm hearing that more than 1 million new mobile subscribers sign up every week in India, for example. I know you've got your LoCosto and eCosto all-in-one chips that address those markets, but what do you think TI needs to do from a technology perspective to better serve their needs going forward?
Stork: In addition to the handsets, we need to ensure that the infrastructure – such as the base station, where TI also has some great products – can support those numbers at manageable costs.
Fortt: Where is Texas Instruments seeing the most competition? Is it in base station products? Low-cost chips? The high end?
Stork: The trick to being most competitive is to have a strong presence in all the above, and balance it well. If you have the low end you have mind and market share, the base station allows deployment, and the high end shows the vision and direction for what could be the next low end.
Fortt: But where are the technology advances the fastest right now, and where are the stakes for success highest from TI's point of view?
Stork: The advances are most visible in the high end. I think they always are. The stakes are high in executing well at the low end. Supporting high volumes is not easy, as these products are by no means low-tech. You can please – or not – large numbers of people.
Fortt: I see your point. As chief technology officer at TI, what mobile technology innovations are you most excited about? I'm curious about your thoughts both on things you've announced and problems you're working on.
Stork: I am very excited about our DRP technology that underlies our "Costo" products. The technology leap that people made to get that capability some half a dozen years ago was often met with skepticism, but is reality today. On the video side, DaVinci as a broad platform for development and solutions is only at the beginning. Both these technologies have the potential to grow for some time.
Fortt: Tell me a bit about DaVinci. Why is it important for TI to play in that space?
Stork: One way to make that clearer is to say that video will take the place of voice today. It is showing up everywhere. And DaVinci allows us to play along the whole pipeline, from capture to display.
Fortt: So, we’ll have phone conversations where people are holding their handsets in front of their faces rather than up to their ears, perhaps? Video phone conversations, that is?
Stork: Not just phones. Video is in automotive, machines, security, medical imaging, conferencing, and the usual entertainment.
Fortt: Home automation is another of the areas you've targeted with DaVinci – do you think that segment is going to see widespread acceptance soon?
Stork: Many applications are possible at the home. It must get easier to install before the broader market can engage. But if you look back at security, where that was just 5 years ago, and what you can do in an afternoon today with much more capable equipment is night and day.
Fortt: Are you getting everything you'd like from the semiconductor equipment manufacturers? What more should they be doing?
Stork: With regard to the equipment suppliers, I will be addressing them in January about the consequences of commoditization of many electronic products.
Fortt: Can you give a preview?
Stork: More products are in the consumer space. That means higher volumes, more rapid cycles, and lower cost constraints. Their equipment is high-capital and high-volume, but slow to build, install, and maximize productivity.
Fortt: Do you see a path they can take toward change – is there an example they can follow to start moving more quickly? Or is it something they'll have to figure out from scratch?
Stork: I have heard some CEOs saying the right things. It is hard to do. I want to finish with saying that I spent a lot of time in 2006 trying to engage government, state and federal, to keep our industry healthy for the long term future. High tech is important to this country.
Fortt: Indeed. And since you're helping to build that future, I know you're quite busy. Thanks for taking the time.
Stork: My pleasure. Thanks.