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Samsung offers a peek into mobile trends of the future

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The U.S. division of Korea’s Samsung Electronics took a deep dive into its mobile technologies today at its local U.S. chip headquarters in San Jose, Calif., highlighting everything from the coming flexible screens for tablet computers to dual-core processors for smartphones. The company’s marketers tried to present the idea that no one is better positioned for the future of mobile electronics than Samsung. The company competes with other integrated technology companies such as Sony, LG, HP, and Apple — but few can boast the technologies Samsung showed off today.

Samsung’s bet on mobile stems from the expectation that the mobile internet will have ten times as many devices as desktop computers. And the company espouses the view of Kleiner Perkins partner Mary Meeker, who said that some companies will win big in the rapid growth of the mobile internet and others will wonder what just happened.

The number of smartphones is expected to exceed the number of PCs shipped this year. Feature phones were still the biggest part of the market in 2010, accounting for 970 million units sold compared to 310 million units for smartphones. But by 2015, smartphones will dominate, with 1.0 billion sold compared to 890 million feature phones, according to data from sources including Display Search, Business Insights, Gartner and Samsung.

About 20 million tablet computers were sold in 2010, most of them iPads. About 200 million netbooks and notebooks were sold during the year, and 150 million desktop PCs were sold, for a grand total of 370 million units. By 2015, the numbers will be 160 million desktops, 320 million netbooks and notebooks, and 230 million tablets, for a total of 710 million units.

One of the big drivers of mobile data usage is video. Data from Cisco shows that the web’s video data is growing 40 percent a year, with 30,800 petabytes of video data transferred each month in 2011 growing to 55,600 petabytes a month in 2013. Much of that will happen on mobile networks, as video is already 41 percent of the load during peak mobile data traffic times.

That, in turn will put a lot of demand on cloud computing, as web-connected data centers in the “internet cloud” will have to feed data to all of the mobile devices. Faster wireless networks such as Long-Term Evolution (LTE) will accelerate the explosion of data and the demand for storage and computing.

That, in turn, will drive demand for low-power “green” technologies, since electricity costs are at least a quarter of the costs of data centers. The world’s data centers account for 0.2 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, while airlines account for 0.6 percent. If all 32 million of the world’s servers used energy-efficient memory chips, the savings on carbon emissions would be like taking out 18 major coal electricity plants.

And that is why Samsung keeps investing in multibillion-dollar chip factories and new generations of machinery that can create smaller and smaller patterns on silicon wafers. Each time the chip maker moves to a new generation, it can make chips 50 percent smaller, 30 percent faster, and 10 percent more energy efficient.

Right now, Samsung makes chips with circuits that are 32 nanometers apart. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and a human hair is about 100,000 nanometers thick. Later this year, Samsung will begin the shift to 20 nanometer manufacturing and then move to 14 nanometer manufacturing in 2013 and beyond.

It’s getting so expensive to build these factories that IBS predicts only four companies will be able to build 14 nanometer manufacturing capacity, compared to seven in the current generation. Samsung insists it will be one of them, said Jim Elliott, vice president of marketing and product planning at Samsung Semiconductor. Right now, both 20 nanometer and 14 nanometer manufacturing are in the research and development phase.

Samsung is going to use those factories to make processors with much higher 3D graphics performance, cameras with better resolution, faster and better memory technologies, and more advanced display technology, said Richard Yeh, senior director of system LSI marketing at Samsung Semiconductor.

Jim Handy, an analyst at Objective Analysis, noted that Samsung’s progress on chip manufacturing is not unique. All major semiconductor manufacturers — admittedly a thinning list — can take advantage of Moore’s Law (first observed in 1965 by Intel chairman emeritus Gordon Moore) that chip performance doubles every couple of years. The idea that a new manufacturing process allows lower power operation is the “theme song of semiconductors,” Handy said. But he acknowledges that Samsung is among the leading suppliers of NAND flash memory and DRAM, and it has a big presence in the LCD screen business. And while Samsung talked mostly about mobile, those components are used across many more markets.

Samsung recently announced its Orion processor, part of the Samsung Exynos family of microprocessors. It’s a dual-core chip that will compete with rivals from Qualcomm and Nvidia. A single-core processor is already out and powering Samsung’s Galaxy S smartphone and Galaxy Tab tablet computer.

The faster dual core chips have five times better graphics and will be able to power more tablets coming out this year that are competitive with rivals, Samsung said. That can help drive 3D gaming, stereoscopic 3D displays, and augmented reality apps.

Meanwhile, Samsung is also working hard to make mobile digital cameras as good as stand-alone digital cameras. The company says it can make cameras that capture 16 megapixel images and 1080p video now — good enough to compare to stand-alone cameras. But the zoom functions lag behind the better lenses of stand-alone cameras.

Samsung’s DAZSLE digital zoom technology is aimed at closing the gap, said Paul Gallagher, director of marketing for system LSI imaging. The DAZSLE technology will roll out in small-size cameras later this year, enabling up to 3X zoom. Samsung is also making it easier for cameras to take pictures of distant subjects even with low light.

Demand for main memory chips (dynamic random access memory) is increasing six-fold in the next four years because of the need for smartphones and tablets to do computer-like multitasking (doing many chores at once), take 8-megapixel to 12-megapixel pictures, run 3D games, and display full-motion video. But the power drawn by the memory chips has to keep declining so that the higher performance can be met without a loss in battery life. Samsung is working on a bunch of improvements in DRAM, flash memory, and hard disk drives as well.

The tablet market will be differentiated based on the size of screens, ranging from 4 inches for smartphones to as much as 13-inches for education-focused tablets. Those displays have to be slim, high-resolution, low power, and touchscreen capable. The larger screens require much faster data pathways and more internal memory, said Yong Park, senior director of LCD marketing.

Tablet production is expected to go from around 20 million in 2010 to around 53 million in 2011. One of the most important advances will come in wider viewing angles, so the images will look good even if you’re looking at them at a slight angle. And since display consumes 75 percent of the electricity used by a tablet, low-power consumption is a must as well.

Future touchscreens will be able to detect not only finger gestures, but pen inputs on the screen at the same time as someone is using their fingers. Samsung is trying to make LCD screens thinner and able to display stereoscopic 3D with no need to wear special glasses.

But it is also making even thinner active-matrix organic light-emitting diode (AMOLED) screens that are transparent, thinner, and more flexible. Some of those AMOLED screens are going to be used in products this year, but these displays are in their infancy, said Yongsuk Choi, director of Samsung Mobile Display.

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