System-on-chip (SOC) design and fabrication technology is beginning to provide single-chip wireless products. The first products are Bluetooth devices, which became available at the end of last year. Single-chip Bluetooth devices will appear soon in many more products. Some of these products will have other radio technologies in them — for example, mobile phones, notebook computers and personal digital assistants embedded with wireless local-area networks (WLAN). Others, such as handheld games and music devices, will be upgraded to wireless capability by the addition of Bluetooth radio technology.

Continued SOC efforts ultimately will lead to single-chip WLAN and cellular phone solutions, for which it is more beneficial to connect to a LAN or WAN than a personal-area network.

The embedding of these technologies in a wide variety of mobile and portable devices eventually will lead to new applications that will propel the wireless semiconductor market to higher growth in the second half of this decade. The unit production volumes of personal wireless connectivity devices will exceed that of all previous electronic products.

By comparison, in the 1980s, the unit production of PCs exceeded that of any other electronic device of that time. However, PCs remain the largest revenue market for semiconductors, with between 100 and 200 million PCs produced a year and the semiconductor content being several hundred dollars per system.

In the 1990s, we saw the emergence of digital cellular communications. Production of digital cellular devices has reached 400 to 500 million a year, with $35 to $40 of semiconductor content per handset.

Personal connectivity devices promise to reach volumes of multiple billions of units a year, with only a few dollars to $15 of semiconductor content per device. These devices represent a market opportunity of tens of billions of dollars a year in the second half of this decade.

We should remember that developing and producing low-cost single-chip wireless products will not be easy. A variety of challenging technologies will have to be combined onto a single chip, and semiconductor packaging will be key in making the silicon work properly and reliably.

Power management, imbedded passive components, precision analog devices and radio frequency circuits must all operate efficiently on a single chip and not be compromised by the packaging interconnect. Packaging companies must develop system-in-package (SiP) technologies that will be necessary for the interim wireless solutions that will emerge as technology progresses toward SOC solutions. Additionally, foundries must assemble and characterize the technologies that will be critical for wireless SOC products that will enable the next round of wireless semiconductor growth. Finally, venture capitalists must assemble funds to finance the development of wireless SOC products and applications that will drive industry growth in the second half of this decade.

Perhaps the ultimate goal is to have a “radio” on every chip in the future, as Intel believes, so that chips can functionally link and talk to each other. But, in the end, the chip still needs to be packaged or protected.

Jim Walker, principle analyst, may be contacted at Gartner Inc., 251 River Oaks Pkwy., San Jose, CA 95134; (408) 468-8483; E-mail: [email protected].


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