Market Insight

3G/4G Reference Platforms: Not Just Chipsets

June 04, 2014

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Having surpassed the 50% adoption rate 2 years ago, smartphones, across all tiers, are forecasted by IHS to represent over 3/4ths of all phones shipped this year.  By 2017, 9 out of every 10 mobile phones will be smartphones.  It is clear that smartphones are no longer limited to the rich and/or developed regions of the world.  What isn’t as clear is how smaller OEMs, often from China, Japan and other parts of Asia can try to access this growth potential given that approximately half of all smartphones shipped are controlled by the 2 big players – Samsung and Apple.  The key for these players will be not only to design, produce and market high quality smartphones at extremely competitive price points, but also to globalize their addressable market and not stay limited to their traditionally highly regionalized strategies.  While on the surface, this seems like a simple deduction, its implementation in anything but.  To help OEMs solve these problems, the leading 3G/4G modem chipset suppliers are all launching fully vetted, commercially ready reference platform solutions.  However, as with all solutions, depending on the problem, some are better suited than others.

To help shed some light on assessing these solutions, IHS will be delivering a series of Cellular Reference Platform Insights to further explore these designs.  This article is the first of this series.  

Critical Areas of Exploration

Over the course of the series, critical questions will be assessed including but not limited to:

  • What aspects outside of the actual core chipset and technical specifications must be considered?
  • Does accessing a global market only require the appropriate frequency band support or is there more to it?  Once the device is working and certified, what else does it take to bring it to market?
  • What is SKU efficiency, why is it important and how can reference platforms be utilized to enable it?

The “Yes, But….” In Reference Platforms

Yes, a strong core chipset is an important element of the reference design, but like a wheel, it is only the hub around which the rest of the wheel is designed.  Of course the hub will need to perform admirably and this is not to minimize the importance of having a good modem/RF design on which to build the reference platform – let’s face it, ultimately, the whole point is still to make cellular voice and data calls in the best way possible and that just can’t be done without a strong core chipset.  However, just like a wheel, it cannot work well unless the other parts like the spokes, the rim and the tire are also designed just as well. In the case of a reference platform, these other factors include but are not limited to:

  • Scale of testing, certification and engineering support
  • Platform supplier relationships with infrastructure equipment vendors
  • Platform supplier relationships with mobile network operators
  • Software solution suite, including development tools
  • Scale of architecture partners and reference platform options

One of the major benefits of a reference platform solution is that time to market from design of the smartphone to commercial availability is drastically reduced from 6-9 months to 6-9 weeks, sometimes even less.  A reference platform supplier’s ability to optimize this time to market savings is directly affected by 3 factors:  its ability to shorten the testing cycles that are required for cellular devices to be activated in any given country and any given mobile network operator in that country; providing not only the hardware but the software and development tools required for the reference platform to operate as a commercially ready device and last but not least, having enough options in the reference platform suite to allow OEM customers to differentiate on price tiers whilst minimizing the amount of customization to the base designs.  

Due to the highly dynamic nature of wireless networks, each combination of country, operator and infrastructure vendor results in a potentially unique environment which needs to be taken into account.  Often times, the same operator in the same country might use a different infrastructure vendor for different regions in that country.  Or due to specific country regulations and characteristics, the same operator using the same infrastructure vendor might be forced to configure their network in a different way resulting in material changes to how a smartphone might interact with that network. 

A platform supplier’s ability to test and pre-certify across as many of these different variables and combinations as possible translates not only to time to market but also to best in class support of an OEMs globalization efforts.  As such, a platform supplier’s relationships not only with infrastructure vendors but also mobile network operators globally are critical factors to consider in selecting the appropriate platform partner.

Along with testing scale and relationships, the second factor that drives a platform solution’s ability to shorten time to market is the availability and quality of the software suite included in the platform.  In order for a cellular device such as a smartphone to be commercially ready, both the device’s cellular operation as well as the consumer experience that it enables must also be ready.  One common misconception around cellular device design is that it is a primarily hardware design.  While the hardware certainly is important, cellular operation still requires protocol stacks and algorithms operating on the hardware in order for cellular communication to actually occur.  Likewise, since smartphones no longer simply facilitate phone calls but also other user experiences, the operating system and pre-loaded applications and software suites are also critical to the success of the end device.  A platform supplier’s ability to provide both types of software packages are also critical in ensuring optimized time to market.

Time to market can also be affected by level of customization performed on the reference platform, or more accurately, the lack thereof.  OEMs need to be able to have options in order to position their products appropriately.  However options, in the world of reference platforms, translate to increased time to market due to their impact on board layout, software/protocol algorithms, testing and certification. That is true of course unless the platform supplier has a wide variety of pre-designed, pre-tested and certified reference platforms and architecture partners from which the OEM customers may select their solutions.  Suppliers of reference platforms have varying capabilities and resources to bring to bear in providing a suite of reference platforms as opposed to only a handful of designs and this capability could be a critical factor to consider depending on how scalable of a solution is needed. 

Figure 1.  Example of Reference Platform Ecosystem

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel, Use It To Build a Better Car

Granted that in some cases, especially the high end segments of the smartphone market, designing all aspects of the “wheel”, which in this case is everything from the modem to the applications processor and the rest of the system, will still yield an appreciable differentiation.  However, in segments of the market where rapid globalization and time to market at tightly controlled price points, utilizing existing reference platforms and focusing on consumer facing differentiation or marketing will be critical to success.  Aside from time to market and ecosystem enablement, assessing reference platform solutions also involve enabling OEMs to reach outside of traditional markets into other regions and doing so in a profitable way.  As OEMs look to globalize their reach, it will not be enough to simply be able to support the available network configurations in a given region.  Taking a design from the lab to the retail shelves will require the ability to easily customize fundamental designs and make them relevant for specific markets through an approach that IHS has dubbed “Globalization through Localization”.  IHS will explore and assess these factors in the following installments of this series.


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