Intel and NEC Electronics America have teamed up to develop a power-management IC (PMIC) solution optimized for mobile Internet devices (MIDs), with initial samples available in the third quarter. The partnership leads to some questions that boil down to what power management has to do with Intel, and why Intel chose NEC for this project.
NEC’s representatives point to Intel CEO Paul Otellini’s keynote address at January’s International Consumer Electronics Show. Underneath the consumer-dazzling predictions, it appears that Intel’s fondest hope would be to own the omni-standard, handheld, wireless-Internet-connectivity platform of the future the way it owns the motherboard (exclusive of DRAM) today.
But if you have a common platform that supports a dozen different wireless standards, you need to be able to ration power so the functions you aren’t using at the moment aren’t draining your battery. Intel apparently feels that it would accelerate development if it had a partner that already had engineering capacity equivalent to its own and a track record of rapid development.
For example, NEC recently developed a PMIC for a non-Intel customer that integrates 29 linear dropout regulators (LDOs), two dc-dc converters, audio playback and recording functions, audio volume control and mixing, battery-charging control, headphone/line/receiver drivers, and LED drivers—virtually everything for a high-end cell phone that isn’t RF or baseband processing. The remarkable thing, NEC emphasizes, is how rapidly its engineers took that chip and others like it from concept to full production.
So why NEC? The company acknowledges that, like the other vertically integrated Japanese IC companies, it has been inward-looking for years. It has produced some excellent power-management chips, but they’ve been for Japanese-brand cell phones for domestic use. While that’s a substantial market, it doesn’t have the future elasticity of, say, the China market.
Cell phones are one thing. The vision Ottelini expressed at CES is orders of magnitude bigger. It promises to be a new “disruptive” technology, changing the way people use their personal gadgets and spawning a range of unanticipated business opportunities. Can Intel and NEC carry it off? They’re two enormously powerful companies with deep pockets and even deeper engineering resources. This could be big.