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January 18, 2011

Bye-bye PXA processors? Probably not just yet.

There was a time, around the year 2000, when Microsoft essentially decreed that Pocket PCs were to run Intel XScale processors. That was a big change, and a rude awakening for some of the Windows CE hardware vendors who had been promised that Windows CE was going to be a multi processor architecture platform. But Intel XScale it was, and the Intel PXA became the de-facto standard processor for virtually all vertical market handhelds for a decade.

So product specs for all those handhelds of that era weren't very exciting. They either had an Intel PXA255 or a PXA270 processor, with slight variations in clock speed. Considering the demise of the once high-flying PDA industry in favor of telco-controlled smartphones, those vertical market handhelds were a rather successful niche, with the occasional massive sale to parcel carriers, field service organizations, postal services, and so on. However, despite the virtual monopoly of the PXA processors, those industrial handhelds were not a lucrative enough market for Intel to remain interested. So in 2006, Intel sold the PXA business to Marvell for a modest US$600 million.

Marvell, a silicone solutions company intent on cracking the emerging smartphone market, initially scrambled to find someone to make the chips for them. They then quickly launched the PXA3xx series of application processors, including the high end 806MHz PXA320. When we tested the first handheld with the new PXA320 chip (the TDS Nomad), we were blown away by its speed and responsiveness.

However, Marvell apparently did not have the reach and marketing power of Intel. Sure, Marvell PXA270 and even the older PXA255 chips continued to power numerous handhelds, but the powerful new PXA3xx chips had trouble gaining traction. There was a new design win here and there, but we also started seeing defections. And those who stayed with Marvell often chose the older PXA270 chip over the newer and more powerful PXA310 or 320.

Of recent releases, Motorola stayed with Marvell for their new MC75A0 (PXA320) and MC55A0 (PXA320), but used a Qualcomm MSM processor for their ES400 enterprise digital assistant. Psion Teklogix chose a Texas Instruments OMAP3 processor for their Omnii XT10, GD-Itronix an ARM Cortex-A8 for their GD300, Datalogic did stay with Marvel for their new Elf (PXA310) and Falcon X3 (PXA310) handhelds but combined them with ARM Cortex co-processors. DAP Technologies stayed with Marvell with their new M2000 (PXA270) and M4000 (PXA270)Series. Getac stayed with Marvell for their PS236 (PXA310) handheld, but not their PS535F that uses a Samsung S3C2450. And then came the most recent blow for Marvell when Intermec based its new line of likely rather high-volume 70 Series handhelds on the TI OMAP 3530.

The situation doesn't appear to be critical for Marvell yet, as the majority of handhelds out there continue to run on its processors, and there have been some good recent design wins for the PXA310 and PXA320. But the PXA3xx series is now also already over four years old, an eternity in processor terms. It's also not quite clear how Marvell's ARMADA family of application processors relates to the PXA chips. Marvell recently explained to me how ARMADA processors target various markets ranging from consumer display devices like eReaders and tablets to high-end HD TVs, but the name AMADA never appears in vertical market handhelds, and while the PXA 3xx processors are listed with the ARMADA chips, there also seems to be an ARMADA 300 Series with 300/310 chips. Confusing? I'd say so.

A little wordplay anecdote here: two or three years ago, Marvell introduced its own "Shiva" CPU technology and announced it'd be used in upcoming SoC (system-on-chip) products. The PXA processors were then considered part of the Shiva family. So where's the word play? Well, turns out a year before, the Marvel Comix had released a comic book with armored Shiva robots that could not be defeated the same way twice. Apparently Marvel Shiva and Marvell Shiva was too close for comfort, and so the Shiva name is gone from Marvell.

Anyway, no, I don't think the Marvell PXA chips are going away anytime soon, but unless Marvell has some plans up its sleeves that were not aware of, they also don't seem to be going anywhere. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much where vertical market handhelds are in general, sort of in a holding patterns until it becomes clear whether Microsoft can be counted on to provide a true next generation mobile operating platform, or not. And whether the fundamental changes in user interface expectation brought upon by the iPhone/iPad and Android smartphones will lead to pressure for similar functionality and ease-of-use in vertical market devices, or not.

Posted by conradb212 at 10:25 PM | Comments (0)

January 07, 2011

Microsoft announces.... nothing. Google follows suit.

Well, the much anticipated Las Vegas CES is shedding no light on how the industry will react to Apple's monster tablet home run. Yes, there were some tablets here and there, but really nothing that we didn't know already, and certainly nothing earth-shattering.

Microsoft, stunningly, showed nothing. Nada. No product, no strategy, no plan. The whole situation was remarkably similar to a time several years ago when erstwhile handheld champion Palm was in the ropes and Microsoft had an opening a mile wide to finally get some traction with Windows CE. What did they do then? Nothing. Well, they came out with Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC 2nd Edition. But even that was better than simply nothing at all. And back then there was nowhere near as much at stake.

If there is one single saving grace in this stunning inactivity, it's that Google, too, missed a giant opportunity to pull it all together and present to the world -- voila and ta-da -- the definite Android OS for tablets, the one that will do battle with Apple, the one that will make Microsoft irrelevant in tablets forever after. Didn't do it.

So those who stuck by Microsoft will now have tablets that really don't work very different from the old Tablet PCs. And those who meekly tried Android or something else missed a golden opportunity to put themselves on the map.

This is as close to forfeiting a game as it gets. By the time Microsoft may finally have something, Apple will have many tens of millions of iPads in the field. And after the virtual Android no-show at CES, the notion that Google seems unable to provide a cohesive tablet platform may get stronger.

So 2010 was the year of the tablet, for Apple, and 2011 will again be the year of the tablet, and no one's playing other than Apple. No one, I should say, of the big guys. There have been some nice new products. Motion Computing's new CL900 tablet is a thing of beauty and we really liked the little Samsung Galaxy Tab we had here for a few weeks.

But overall, Microsoft's apparent inability to figure out what to do in tablets and Google's ongoing spreading itself too thin is eerily reminiscent of CE devices from the likes of HP, Compaq, IBM, LG, NEC, Casio, Philips and others combined fail to gets as much as 25% handheld marketshare against the little Palms. Eventually, of course, Palm defeated itself, but that's not likely going to happen to Apple.

So the tablet crystal ball remains as milky as ever.

Posted by conradb212 at 11:25 PM | Comments (0)

January 02, 2011

Motorola, and the corporation names, corporation games thing

So on January 4, 2011, Motorola will complete its separation into two companies. The way it actually works is that what used to be Motorola will separate Motorola Mobility Holdings, or Motorola Mobility for short, from Motorola proper, and Motorola will then change its name to Motorola Solutions. So technically it looks more like Motorola jettisoned their phone business to concentrate on the much more stable and predictable vertical market offerings developed and sold via Motorola Solutions. From a stockholder's perspective, they'll get one share of Motorola Mobility for every eight shares of old Motorola stock. The old Motorola stock will then undergo a reverse 1-for-7 stock split so that seven shares of old Motorola stock becomes one share in Motorola with its new Motorola Solutions name (see how it works).

Sure reminds of the lines in that old Grace Slick We-Built-This-City song: "Someone always playing corporation games, who cares they're always changing corporation names."

While the spun off cellphone business will have about the same number of employees as the solutions business (both about 20,000), annual revenue of the cellphone side is expected to be US$11-12 billion and on the solutions side about 8-9 billion. However, the cellphone business is exceedingly unpredictable compared to the much more linear solutions side. For example, who'd have thought that cellphone world leader Nokia would completely miss the smartphone wave? Who could have predicted the iPhone? And wasn't Motorola itself on top of the world with its RAZR (over 120 million sold), and then practically fell off the map when the follow-ups didn't catch on? And who could have predicted that the Droid would catch on as it did. It's a wild ride there in cellphones, feast or famine.

Things are much different on the solutions side. Everyone needs "solutions," and solutions helped IBM and HP quietly not only remain relevant, but become bigger than ever despite diminished emphasis on hardware. IBM ditched its PC business (to Lenovo) and printer business (spinning off Lexmark), and while HP is huge in hardware, buying EDS (Electronic Data Systems) also made it one of the largest solutions providers, which now contribute a third of HP's revenue. Compared to those two giants, each with revenues over US$100 billion, Motorola Solutions will be small, but the business model sure looks promising.

What is Motorola Solutions? Company officials have always struggled with communicating that clearly. In essence, they leverage established lines of two-way radios, network equipment, scanners, and handheld computers into solutions for just about any vertical market. The scanners and handheld computers, of course, come from Symbol, which Motorola acquired in 2007. In a sense, with the former Motorola now being Motorola Solutions, and Symbol being a large part of Motorola Solutions, it almost looks like Motorola merged into Symbol, though I am not sure what part of the Motorola Solutions revenue comes from Symbol and what part from the two-way radio and related equipment side. I am also not sure who packages and manages those solutions that rely on Symbol's scanners and handhelds, and the radios, and whether Symbol will be just a hardware shop or be more involved in the solutions process.

Overall, one cannot help but wonder what Motorola had in mind with Symbol and its very considerable brand equity. After the acquisition there were a good two years where some Symbol products continued to have the Symbol name and logo before gradually getting the corporate Motorola logo. In the new Motorola Solutions, Symbol remains by far the most prominent brand, and I really do wonder what it all looks like from the inside.

One almost wonders why they didn't just go back to the Symbol name. There's precedence for such a move: Motorola Solution's biggest competitor in mobile hardware is Intermec, and Intermec once was just a subsidiary of Unova, and not a major one at that (though they swallowed Norand, just as Symbol swallowed Telxon). Yet, under the dynamic leadership of former CEO Larry Brady, Intermec established itself as a successful and driving force in the mobile/wireless industrial market, to the extent where in 2006, Unova changed its name to Intermec.

Oh, and then there is the weird thing with the operating systems: Motorola Mobility (strange choice of name, actually, considering that the actual mobile computers went with the other side) totally depends on Google's Android now, whereas all of Symbol's handhelds use Windows Mobile. Yet, given Windows Mobile's rather tenuous position and uncertain outlook, Symbol/Motorola Solutions simply has to have much more than a passing interest in Android itself. But the Android expertise is now in the other Motorola company. Go figure. And that's before the looming possibility that the Oracle/Google lawsuit over Android may put a monkey wrench in the works, or that Samsung or HTC take over the Android phone business.

Yes, they're always changing corporation names, and at times it's hard not to see it all as corporation games. In our fast-moving world where companies grow and buy each other, those games and struggles have become the norm, and sometimes one really wonders if all the overhead was worth it.

I was reminded of that while following the course of action of another mobile computing conglomerate over the past three years or so. What happened there was that Roper Industries, a very diversified almost US$2 billion company added three mobile computer companies to its roster, those being long-established Canadian DAP Technologies, start-up Black Diamond, and JLT Mobile Computers. The three companies were put together under the "Roper Mobile Technology" name, with DAP, Black Diamond, and Duros (the former JLT models) being its brands. Roper Mobile Technology was then renamed to RMT, Inc, with a nice and modern logo. That seemed to make much sense, but then the whole effort was shelved, with DAP Technologies absorbing the Duros lineup and renaming everything, retiring both their old "MicroFlex" brand name as well as the impressive-sounding "Duros" in the process (and also the somewhat contrived-sounding "Kinysis" name). Black Diamond is once again on its own as a subsidiary of Roper Industries. This probably all makes sense, but from the outside it looks confusing and like a few year's worth of lost opportunity to establish a force in the mobile/rugged market.

No one has a crystal ball, and every decision is (hopefully) the result of careful consideration, but sometimes it's hard to figure out why things are being done a certain way when there appear to have been much more logical courses of action.

Posted by conradb212 at 04:47 PM | Comments (0)