Texas Instruments is betting that a more powerful cell phone, one that uses identical computing cores working in parallel inside the application processor, a setup it calls symmetric multicore processing, will be here as soon as 2011. Such phones, which will be built with multicore ARM-based chips, will allow for faster processing on mobile phones without sacrificing battery life.
Most cell phone chips have multiple cores — one to handle general computing, another for graphics and perhaps some for multimedia — but symmetric multicore processing, or SMP, is new to mobile devices. Unlike servers, which have multicored chips to share a single massively parallel workload, using multiple cores inside a phone allows the operating system to divvy up the work among each core, allowing it to focus on one job instead of multitasking.
Like most people, who are more efficient when focused on a single task, this engineering allows phones to complete a job faster and then power down the core when it’s not needed. Texas Instrument’s OMAP 4 processor, which will be built as a prototype in the fall, will be the first SMP application processor available from the Dallas-based chip company.
According to Brian Carlson, a platform marketing manager with TI’s OMAP group, operating system vendors are already prepping for the change. Eventually, he said, mobile phones will be virtualized to the extent that any processing core — be it a general purpose processor or a graphics processors — may be called upon to do whatever task the OS deems it can do the quickest and without using more power. Such abstraction between the hardware and the OS mirrors what is happening in the data center as servers are virtualized, and follows on a trend of smarter phones on which TI is banking. (TI has, along Motorola, invested in VirtualLogix, a company that provides virtualization software on mobile phones.)
“I don’t see anything letting up on the demand for processing, so once you have multiple cores and SMP, then you have a foundation that scales,” Carlson said. “When you look at the architectures of mobile processors, those architectures that can scale will be in the widest range of products and have the most success.” Which means that if multiple cores and virtualization inside mobile devices pans out as a way to add speed without sacrificing power, it could become a new foundation for the type of mobile computing that’s changing the technology landscape. TI would very much like that.