Intel gets serious about StrongArm handhelds

Intel gets serious about StrongArm handhelds

This month Intel will rearchitect its StrongArm embedded processor and optimise the high-power, low-performance chip for handheld PCs and network hardware devices.

Capitalising on technology obtained from Digital Equipment, Intel has tweaked the StrongArm to achieve 600MHz performance with a 32KB cache, while consuming only 0.5 watts of power.

Currently, Hewlett-Packard's Jornada handheld is the only mobile system running the Windows CE operating system and using the StrongArm processor, running at 233MHz.

Despite the gee-whiz aspect of producing a 600MHz processor for less than $50, Intel's StrongArm processor is not likely to change corporate perceptions of handheld devices in the short run.

"The issues that IT has right now are not issues of performance, but much deeper, ingrained issues that need to be addressed, such as the operating system, connectivity to corporate databases, and easy synchronisation," said David Hayden, a senior industry analyst at Mobile Insights, in Mountain View, California.

Fellow Mobile Insights strategist Gerry Purdy said IT managers now need to consider how the deployment of handheld devices adds to the top line or bottom line of the business.

One IT manager agrees. "I am waiting for the day when we can easily interface these [handhelds] with our JD Edwards [enterprise resource planning] system," said Dave FitzPatrick, IT manager at the Stimson-Lane Wineries, in Washington.

Key component

Performance, however, is a key component if handhelds are to break through as a viable alternative to notebooks for Internet access, according to Allen Hyman, marketing manager for StrongArm products at Intel.

"As the Internet continues to grow as a critical way of doing business, it will require new and more mobile ways of accessing the Internet," Hyman said.

A 600MHz, low-power processor will allow handheld device vendors to perform multiple functions on a single device, such as speech technology for dictation and number dialling or paging, and to streaming video and audio, according to Hyman.

Since Intel first acquired the StongArm from Digital, the company has done little with the technology. That is about to change.

"Intel has a sales organisation of 2000, and the majority will be selling StrongArm," Hyman said.

StrongArm chips are also used in RAID cards, in cryptographic accelerators, and in handheld scanners. A chief rival to the WinCE OS, the Epoch OS from the Symbian consortium - which includes such mobile manufacturers as Motorola, Nokia, Ericsson and Psion - is currently porting the OS to the StrongArm chip.

And while the most popular embedded operating system, the Palm OS for the PalmPilot, has not been ported to the StrongArm processor, Hyman said it is something Intel would like to have and "it is on a future wish list".

Samples of the new chip will ship in the first half of 2000 and products using the chip are expected in the second half.

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