Mobile Phone Makers Engage in Technological Arms Race

A new chip material — silicon-on-sapphire — is starting to make an impact on the way mobile phone handsets are produced, helping to fuel a technological “arms race” in the mobile industry, recent research suggests.

A report by the Boston-based research consultancy Strategy Analytics examined whether silicon-on-sapphire technology was a stop-gap measure for the manufacture of radio frequency (RF) switches, or whether it was a “disruptive technology” that was changing the marketplace. The researchers, to their surprise, discovered that the technology was indeed helping to reshape the switch market.

Tech Advantages

“After evaluating this technology, we have concluded that Peregrine’s SoS RF switches offer advantages that could displace GaAs in dual-mode WCDMA handsets,” Asif Anwar, a director of research at Strategy Analytics, told TechNewsWorld.

Peregrine Semiconductor has already shipped several million CMOS SoS RF switches to its customers — for use in GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) handsets. The company even recently debuted a new switch, the SP7T “HaRP” SoS RF switch, for dual-mode W-CDMA handsets.

There is competition, though. “GaAs vendors have already moved to address p-HEMT switch shortcomings with improved performance, ” said Anwar. “They have also developed switches with higher complexity — not yet available in CMOS on SoS.”

Strategic Moves

Anwar believes these competitive moves will limit the penetration of CMOS SoS switches in applications to a few design wins, at least for now.

Chris Taylor, director of Strategy Analytics’ wireless service, thinks that the chip will succeed in switches for mobile phones because antennae for the phones require complex switch modules, which draw a lot of electric current. The silicon-on-sapphire technology is well-suited to that application, said Taylor.

The raging popularity of cell phones today has inspired a number of advances in mobile components technology, including radio frequency technology for mobile phones. A variable capacity, or vericap, micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) developed by WiSpry, is claimed to be the first practical RF MEMS for mobile phones. According to researchers, the technology could reduce the overall cost of making mobile phones.

“If it performs as claimed, the vericap would reduce the number of passive components needed in handsets and enhance the performance of antenna switch modules (ASMs) and and transceiver modulesm,” Taylor told TechNewsWorld.

The technology provides a marketing edge for handset makers, who face an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Major Sales Increase

More than 816 million mobile phones were sold worldwide last year, an increase of 21 percent from 2004 sales, according to Gartner Group data.

The leading handset manufacturers accounted for 79.4 percent of all global sales in 2005 — and increased their share of the market at the expense of smaller rivals. The market share for the top six developers had been 78 percent in the first three months of the year but this rose to 84 percent for the final quarter of the year.

High-end handsets battle it out in the areas of design and technological features, said Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst for mobile terminals research at Gartner. “The survival of the fittest depends more and more on economies of scales, or very carefully cut-out niche markets,” she said.

In the fourth quarter of 2005, mobile phone sales exceeded 235 million units — the biggest quarter on record.

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