For most people in the telecommunications industry, the complexity of the silicon chips that lie at the heart of their services, devices and profits remain largely – and safely – in the background. While the principles of Moore’s Law have continued to hold good, a couple of generations of both engineers and business executives have grown used to expecting constant falls in hardware price and radical increases in processing power.
Now, however, with network operators of all shapes and sizes trying to come to terms with a new universe of services based on content, openness and real consumer choice, the role of that core silicon in driving entirely new business models is coming under renewed scrutiny. In particular, as mobile phones become the world's most popular consumer electronics device, the power and functionality of that phone – whether represented by its image capturing capabilities or its storage capacity for multimedia – will form a key building block for the revenue chains of the coming years.
It was with these thoughts in mind that European Communications recently caught up with some of the senior executives of Micron Technology Inc., one of the world's most innovative semiconductor developers and a leading force in both memory and imaging technologies.
EC's Alun Lewis started by asking Bob Gove, Micron's VP of Imaging, what changes we could expect to see as the world's telecommunications companies responded to advances in imaging and memory technologies:
BG: At the risk of sounding like a Hollywood screenwriter pitching a horror story, we're starting to see the Internet – in both its fixed and wireless forms – grow eyes! That may initially come across as an overly melodramatic statement but, when you consider that cameraphones now account for two out of every three handsets sold today – out of an annual market of around 500,000 devices, and growing, sold each year – you get an idea of the scale involved in the mobile world alone.
Add onto that the potential for imaging in other applications – from security and surveillance to medical diagnostics and monitoring – and you soon see that the creation of low-cost, but powerful, imaging devices has a huge potential to drive near-exponential change in the ways that we work, live and communicate.
We're currently at something of a cusp when it comes to recognising how important these developments are going to be for the traditional telecommunications industry. Not everyone 'gets it' yet, but those that do – and many new business models and intermediaries in the imaging sector are still emerging – will have access to entirely new and original streams of revenue.
What's more – and just like the staggering and totally unexpected success of SMS – it's largely going to be down to the customers themselves as the driving force behind this new wave of services and money. What we, as an industry, have to do is give them tools that are up to the job and that fulfil their own particular needs.
AL: You mention SMS as an example of where the industry failed to appreciate the real dynamics of their customer base. How do you translate customer requirements in such a new area into designing and engineering real products?
BG: There's an old saying in the engineering fraternity that when it comes to making a product faster, cheaper and better, you can only ever have any two out of those three at any one time. The combination of the core characteristics of silicon – as represented by Moore's Law – combined with Micron's own specific expertise in both design and manufacturing, means that we can now get three out of three in both imaging and memory components.
What's important, though, is understanding the requirements of the end user. If we don't make products fit for each customer's usage – whether they're an enthusiastic mobile blogger, someone seeking to send images or video in to a TV show, or a grandmother wanting to capture images of her grandchildren – then we and our own customers will miss the particular points on the cost and performance curves that address those markets.
Traditionally, it's usually been the gadget-minded male who's the first to get into digital photography. The merging of imaging and the mobile phone and the greatly improved usability of these devices has opened this up to a female market with a huge potential. It is, after all, the wives and mothers who usually become the family archivists, capturing precious family memories and passing them down the generations.
That's one reason why Micron has concentrated on delivering very high quality image sensors that can readily operate in the great variety of situations where the amateur's going to want to capture an image without having to think about it. This is particularly acute in low-light environments, and we do have a saying that if your cameraphone still works under a table, then it's a Micron image sensor! We put a lot of effort into ensuring that things like colour sensitivity and accuracy get taken for granted by the end user, without them having to negotiate complex image processing software to get a decent, fit-for-purpose picture or video.
AL: There are huge changes afoot in the wider telecommunications industry though – the entry of WiFi and WiMax into the mass market, cross-industry activity between content owners and telecoms carriers such as TV voting and reality programming, plus the development of real convergence between the mobile and fixed worlds through projects like BT's Fusion service, to name just a few. How are these impacting on Micron's business and technology strategies?
BG: In essence, the value chain for service providers is getting a lot longer and much more complicated and it's crucial for their business plans that the customer is more than just a passive consumer of bandwidth – they have to generate their own content now and imaging naturally forms a key part of that new value. Some people are just going to want basic point and shoot functionality, while others are going to go for a top range device – we have to meet both requirements and indeed people may cycle between different devices during a single day depending on their requirements.
Network operators themselves are realising that Quality of Service is a crucial attribute for increasingly sophisticated customers, and Micron can help them in achieving that by ensuring that the visual content from the customer's cameraphone is excellent to begin with.
The domestic networking market, in particular, is also looking very interesting, with WiFi and WiMax driving the true integration of consumer electronics devices like TVs and HiFis with PCs and mobile handsets. Today's youth, for example, doesn't distinguish between different voice and data networks and services in the way that their parents do – to them it's all communications and media.
This development also plays to our strengths in the memory field. Our technology and manufacturing investments in CMOS for imaging and DRAM, DDRAM and NAND technologies allows us to bring high-yield, high-performance products to market quickly and reliably – essential for our own customers who have their own tight product schedules to meet.
In the wired/wireless home, users are far more likely to download multimedia content onto their mobile devices over DSL links that are effectively free, than they are to pay the traditionally high tariffs demanded by mobile data services. As content such as films and TV programmes become distributed over the Internet and Digital Rights Management issues become clarified, users will want to take this content with them on the move and that requires a lot of compact storage in the device itself.
In August this year, for example, we announced that we'd started shipping 8 Gigabit and 4 Gigabit NAND Flash memory products.
AL: Your earlier comment about the Internet growing eyes certainly has a particularly apt resonance in today's security conscious world. How do you see imaging developing in this area?
BG: It's far too simplistic to just see things through 1984-coloured spectacles, and the ability to monitor many different things visually can bring incredible benefits to us as both individuals and as societies.
For personal health applications, Micron's gone beyond the cameraphone to develop the camerapill, capable of capturing images of a patient's gut during its journey from mouth onwards, and then send these to a radio receiver on the patient's waist. This can dramatically reduce the need for invasive surgery or disruption to the patient's life.
Additional imaging applications that we see include 3D barcodes that can be read by mobile phones, allowing customers to carry out instant in-store checks on product information and prices, while another area of focus is on imaging for fingerprint readers in mobile devices. As these become increasingly important as highly personalised tools that allow us to interact with ever-richer sets of online services and applications, their own implicit security also increases in importance. It may be your device, but how can you guarantee that it's only used by you?
There's also the remote monitoring of home and family while people are away, as another important application area. Whether it's a working parent being able to see their child at nursery school via a webcam or just check up on their house while away from home, remote imaging can bring peace of mind, as well as new revenue opportunities for service providers.
Continued improvements in how we package devices are also allowing us to introduce them to more hostile environments, such as cars and lorries. On one hand there's legislation coming in around the world to introduce both high and low speed crash avoidance systems, and optical sensors are now ideal for this, replacing a profusion of mirrors. On the other, they can also control airbag deployment to make sure that a small child doesn't get squashed.
AL: And any final thoughts for the mobile industry?
BG: Keep watching this space – even if you're not directly using image processors or are involved in cameraphones! Most of the current, new wave of growth in telecommunications is riding on content – with much of it produced by users themselves. If you fail to spot what's happening at that end of the food chain, you'll miss out on opportunities further up the line. From almost a standing start three years ago, 20 per cent of our revenues now come from imaging and supporting specialist memory – a proportion certain to increase in coming years as users move from transmitting just their voices and thoughts to include images of the world around them.
Manufacturing for an ever more complex value chain
Alun Lewis was also able to talk briefly to Dr David Burrows, director of Micron's UK Design Centre, about the company's design and manufacturing strategy
AL: David, semiconductor manufacturing can be a pretty hairy place to be at times, given the speed the industry moves at. How has Micron approached these issues?
DB: It might sound like a cliché, but it's all about understanding what the customer wants – sometimes even before they're fully aware of it themselves, and then designing products and prices to meet that need. For example, we anticipated the demand for cameraphones and similar devices quite early on and pioneered the use of CMOS technology in manufacturing these, allowing them to be made using standard methods employed for DRAM production.
We're also able to place a great deal of functionality and power within the actual chip itself, drawing on Micron's in-house image processing and manipulation expertise to add considerable value to the basic image capture system. This means that we're able to supply both individual components as well as complete camera systems-on-a-chip that include features such as colour recovery and correction, and auto-exposure, making things simpler for both the device manufacturer and the end user.
These integrated features are not the only thing of course: our experience in designing high precision versions of our sensors manufactured in ceramic packaging with industrial temperature capabilities, global shutter and other features also allows us to supply additional markets, including those of automotive safety and driving assistance, medical, defence, security surveillance and aviation related systems. In addition we create very high frames per second sensors that are already being used for Hollywood film special effects.
AL: So how do we see these factors impacting on price and performance into the future?
DB: We'll still be riding on Moore's Law for quite a while yet!
The cameraphone market is starting to settle out and there's a huge potential with a dynamic demand that, in due course, should even see us beginning to manufacture our sensors here in Europe at our semiconductor plant in Avezzano, Italy. Another emphasis is on improving the performance of mid-range products such as our newly available 3.1 megapixel camera chip, which can still turn out a high quality A4 image in low light conditions. The top of the range continues to expand as well, hence our just-announced launch of a 5 megapixel digital still camera quality device. Our research and development in CMOS imager efficiency continues to advance, of course, and we recently gave the world's first demonstration of images produced by 0.17 micron pixel technology. This will allow even greater megapixel cameraphone targeted devices from us in the not too distant future.