Software Trumps Hardware

One of the challenges facing the wireless world is the constant change in formats and the fact that most wireless devices have to include specialized hardware in order to support those format. As a result, uptake on new wireless format can often be slow in the mobile phone industry as it represents a typical chicken or egg problem: the telcos will not build new infrastructures until devices are available to consumers, and device manufacturers will not build until the infrastructure is in place. In comes Vanu, a new company that is proposing a radical new concept: the software based radio. The idea is that most of the functions related to managing communication would be relegated to software instead of being hard coded into hardware. It could represent a real revolution in the way telecommunication systems are built and could eventually reduce the cost of production for those devices. The reason is that manufacturer could include such software into their phones and not have to worry about upcoming standards relegated their devices to the trash bin. Right now, when a mobile device manufacturer sells a new product, that product includes several chips to manage each of the different format (GSM, TDMA, CDMA, etc…) Using a software based solution would allow to reduce the amount of hardware needed and handle all this format management by using software.

It’s an interesting trend and one that reminds me of some of the early efforts by Transmeta, which introduced the concept of a software-based computer chip. In both cases, engineers looked at a problem and realized that the best way to address it was to use software instead of hard coding the solution into hardware.

This, of course, represents a compromise in a way as software based solutions cannot be as optimized as hardware based ones. On the other hand, they are offering cheaper alternative to building devices. If you look at today’s world, there are millions (if not billions) of chips with proprietary solution tied into them. Will we see a day when those chips become commodity and software becomes more of the way to go?

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