When one reviews trends in the telecommunications market, it is clear that one of the driving forces moving the market forward is integration. Integration can take many forms, but the most prevalent manifestations are at the product level and silicon chip level. An example of product level integration would be a laptop computer with an external GSM/GPRS wireless PC card. Silicon level integration can be seen in products ranging from Ethernet routers and DSL gateways, to home cordless and cellular phones.
The cellular phone market is driven by a demand for continuously smaller handsets that provide increasingly advanced functionality, have longer talk and standby times, and lower cost. Product level integration allows manufacturers to prove market viability and interest in various feature combinations, prior to committing the investment in time and money required for silicon level integration. While it is a pragmatic way to approach the problem and reduce risk, product level integration typically yields a physically larger and more expensive solution.
Chipsets have progressed over the past few years and are on track towards a 2 - 3 chip implementation. The coveted single chip integration is being bantered about, but none have surfaced just yet. Silicon level integration ultimately provides the smallest size and lowest cost solution, but it takes significant market volume to achieve significant cost savings and pay back the development costs.
The emerging 3G cellular market is one where chipsets for GSM/GPRS handsets have evolved under an umbrella of hyper competition while at the same time driven by a demand for increasingly complex features such as color screens, MP3 players, and embedded digital cameras. In addition, the 3G version of GSM/GPRS requires the addition of a new technology WCDMA. The question then is how to integrate WCDMA with the smallest impact on size or cost advantage.
Current thinking points to not integrating at the silicon level at all but rather at the product level by including the WCDMA functional blocks as add-ons. By reusing existing GSM/GPRS solutions and externally adding the minimum WCDMA functionality, one can achieve a lower risk, quicker time-to-market solution, while enabling the new technology.
Product level integration is an imperfect solution as the initial technology, in this case GSM/GPRS, was not purposely designed to be integrated with a more advanced technology like WCDMA. This requires the WCDMA solution to be designed in such a way that it is able to connect or adapt to the existing GSM/GPRS technology without requiring redesign to achieve maximum benefit.
Integrating these technologies at the silicon level is more difficult and incurs a longer development time as well as increased risk and cost. Silicon level integration should only be considered once WCDMA technology has matured, and the working dual mode system is refined. As market volumes increase, only then does it make economic sense to look at silicon level integration to take the product to the next plateau.
So what's the answer? The 3G cellular market can benefit from silicon disintegration. When examining the market dynamics for the integration of a mature and hyper competitive technology with a new and emerging technology, disintegration stands out as viable methodology.