It’s a Weird, Wireless World: Why Nvidia Wants Icera

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If you didn’t think computing’s future was both visual and mobile, then Nvidia’s decision to buy wireless radio startup Icera¬†clinches it. The $367 million cash deal will allow Nvidia to integrate Icera’s radios with Nvidia’s Tegra processors, setting Nvidia up for a competitive battle with Qualcomm in the mobile application processor market. That Nvidia has seen a way to move from producing graphics cards to becoming a key element in a variety of high-end mobile handsets and tablets is a testament to the shift that has occurred as connectivity reshapes the computing landscape.

Icera is a nine-year-old semiconductor company that makes a baseband chip with the ability to listen to many different frequencies and technological standards in one small package. That means it can work on 2G, 3G and 4G networks that use different protocols — such as HSPA, HSPA+ and LTE — all on the same chip. The Icera chip is also programmable, making it far more flexible than one hardwired for a variety of protocols. Integrating radio technologies in future Nvidia SOC (system on a chip) hardware could lead to lower power¬†consumption for mobile devices.

Nvidia isn’t just banking on wireless computing, it’s banking on the kind of fast device design cycles that vendors such as Apple, with its typical annual refresh, have ushered into the market. With a programmable radio, Nvidia can change-up the radio for customer’s demands at a much faster rate. Nvidia also plans to keep Icera’s other customers happy by integrating Icera’s processor with whatever other application processor of the customer’s choosing. This puts Nvidia in the baseband business and if Nvidia wants to pursue it, could result in Icera gaining some real market traction, given its relatively small balance sheet has limited the company to this point.

The deal is an echo of Intel’s decision to buy Infineon’s wireless business for $1.4 billion last year, as well as a vote for the Qualcomm way of doing things, which basically offers device makers an integrated application processor with a radio on the same chip. Other leaders in the application processor market, such as Samsung, also have their own radios, with Samsung investing in developing its own LTE chips a few years ago. Other vendors in the radio world have beefed up their application processor efforts, with firms such as Broadcom and Marvell both pushing hard on the “brains” aspect of their chip businesses. This leaves me wondering where a vendor such as Texas Instruments fits in, given that TI got out of the wireless baseband business to focus on application processors.

Regardless of where individual chip firms shake out here, the deal is a clear indication that connectivity (and cellular connectivity at that) has become a must-have feature in computing today. Nvidia’s confidence in its ability to break into this market also shows how vastly different the mobile ecosystem could be, when compared to the staid Wintel architecture that dominated the PC era.

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