Imec ITF: Smartphones are amazing, but a challenge for the industry

by Jan Provoost, science editor, imec Click to Enlarge

May 26, 2011 – For ITF’s 2nd keynote of the day, Jim Clifford of Qualcomm introduced his talk by referring to the social changes that are taking place in many countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt — changes that are made possible, he said, because of technology such as the smartphone, a platform that makes it possible to share communication and experiences. For many people their first computing device will be a smartphone, and their first contact with the Internet will be through them as well.

He then went on to link the ever-increasing functionality of smartphones with the computing power needed to make it all work: the silicon that has to run the various types of devices, the competing OS’s, the many connectivity and network choices, etc. Over the last few years, the compute power of the chips that drive smartphones has kept on growing tremendously. Still, in view of what is possible with a smart platform, there seems to be never enough computing power.

Just think of the added computations needed to tackle just one of the next challenges: image processing. Modern-day cameras are ready to do face detection — but just around the corner is face recognition. And what about the recognition of feelings from pictures, or labeling every face in a crowd? Or making 3D movies? For most of us, Clifford noted, our first 3D camera will be a smartphone.

The challenge for companies such as Qualcomm is to integrate all that power and functionality on a piece of silicon. It’s to be best-in-class, and at the same time to deliver a product that is cheap enough so that it is actually picked up and used.

For all the technical challenges, Clifford pointed out, the engineers always come up with solutions — but will those solutions still be cost-effective? Up to now, the industry has succeeded in bringing down the costs by 29% per year. But seeing the solutions ahead, he fears that the cost reduction curve may soon flatten. He calls upon the ICT community, especially the R&D partners such as imec, to make sure that the cost reduction curve can be lengthened for at least some more time.

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