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Wireless Infrastructure Newsletter

Toshiba signed for Google's Project Ara May 21 2014

Japanese chipmaker reported to be preferred supplier of processors to power Google's modular handset's 'endoskeleton'

By Caroline Gabriel

With Project Ara, Google hopes to do for handsets what Ikea did for furniture, moving the market from high design to flatpack. From next year, it aims to harness emerging technologies like 3D printing to offer a fully customized design, in which a smartphone is assembled to order from a set of modules. If this catches on with consumers, it could alter the economics of handsets, and break down Apple's iron-fist model, which relies on tight control of a small set of suppliers. Google aims to play up its self-proclaimed open credentials by welcoming third party modules, a move which could create a hardware version of the app store revolution.

But this is still hardware, with all the costs that implies, so there will have to be some core components which the search giant and its partners must purchase in massive volumes, in order to make the handsets the high volume, low cost devices envisaged by Google. These components may not come from the suppliers which currently dominate the cellphone supply chain, and opportunities may well open up, not just for new mobile entrants like Google's printing partner, 3D Systems, but for established firms which have not profited significantly from handsets so far.

Japan's Toshiba is reported to be one firm in that category. Although a giant in mobile memory, and a frequent development partner with the Japanese mobile operators, Toshiba has otherwise been a bit player in smartphones. But according to reports by Japanese news agency Nikkei, the company has been chosen to supply three types of processors for the Ara modules and for the 'endoskeleton' - the common framework, which will cost from only about $50, and into which the various separately priced modules will slot.

In Google's concept, users will be able to add between five and 10 modules, according to the size of the endoskeleton. The big new processor opportunity lies in the chips to control the flow of data and signalling between the different modules, a process which will vary depending on the units chosen and their functionality. Options might include apps or specialist processors, cameras, swap-out batteries and many others.

Nikkei says Toshiba began working with Google six months ago on Project Ara - which grew out of an R&D exercise at the latter's Motorola Mobility subsidiary, one which the parent firm will retain once Motorola is sold to Lenovo. The report says the company "was approved as a preferred supplier for this line, the only Japanese company to be given that status", and will be the "sole chipmaker for the phone about a year after its roll-out" (in the endoskeleton, though Toshiba is also expected to provide some chips for certain modules).

Sample shipments of the silicon will start this fall, with mass production to begin early next year.

Baidu is powerful new contender in deep learning race May 20 2014

Chinese search giant sets up Silicon Valley lab as it fights with Google, Microsoft and others to redefine mobile search

By Caroline Gabriel

Behind nearly all the interesting new mobile web business models lies a massive artificial intelligence, or deep learning, engine. Some of these are being developed in great secrecy to support the next wave of services from Google, Facebook or Microsoft. Others, like IBM's Watson and AlchemyAPI, are open to a broad developer community, while the next stage will be 'as a service' platforms - a possible business for some operators, like AT&T, which have developed advanced analytics systems to examine their own networks and subscriber behavior.

But don't be fooled by the fact that all these names are American. As in most areas of advanced technology, Chinese web giants and research institutions are matching their western counterparts dollar for dollar in development of next generation AI engines, with a particular focus on supporting mobile services such as advanced context-aware search (of which Apple Siri, Google Now and Microsoft Cortana are just infant examples); as well as analytics and personalization services for enterprises and IoT (internet of things) providers.

The 'Chinese Google', search provider Baidu, is particularly active in developing mobile and web platforms which will start by dominating its home market, but will also look for global presence, especially in emerging markets like India and Indonesia, where no player is yet as entrenched as Google is in the west. As well as their substantial homegrown R&D resources, the big Chinese players are going global in terms of tapping expertise too.

Baidu has set up a research lab in the heart of Silicon Valley, in Yahoo's home town of Sunnyvale. And it has hired a Stanford computer science professor, Andrew Ng, to head the global Baidu Research operation. Ng is a catch - he worked on deep learning at Google when it was doing its 'Google Brain' project; was a founder of online learning organization Coursera; and is a well-known figure in the AI field. He illustrates how Silicon Valley brains are no longer a resource mainly available to US firms. While based in Sunnyvale, where Baidu says it will invest $300m in its new facility over five years, he will also oversee several labs in China.

Baidu also set up its Beijing Deep Learning Lab last year and says it has already made progress in key technologies which will revolutionize the online search experience, making it open to many inputs (such as gestures and voice) and able to predict users' needs and behaviour, based on sophisticated analysis of context, location and history. That prediction can then be the basis of all kinds of analytics to support activities like targeted advertising, demographics research (as well as more sinister 'big brother'-type uses). Among Baidu's areas of research are image recognition and image-based search, voice recognition, natural language processing and semantic intelligence, machine translation and advertising matching. The firm has already introduced an app to identify objects in smartphone photos.

Kai Yu, director of the Deep Learning Lab, told MIT Technology Review that the new Silicon Valley lab would be targeted with fundamental research, while his lab will examine how to apply the deep learning breakthroughs to new commercial products and services.

Google will be eyeing these developments with fear. It is essential to its power and revenues that it continues to dominate and shape the search experience and just last week, CEO Larry Page acknowledged in his annual 'Founder's Letter' that "in many ways, we're a million miles away from creating the search engine of my dreams - the one that gets you just the right information at the exact moment you need it with almost no effort".

"Information is Google's core," as Page noted in his letter - gathering and analyzing vast quantities in all kinds of formats, in order to deliver the new breed of search results, but also to track people and machines more efficiently than ever before, to power the core revenue generators, advertising and big data. As well as Google Brain and the Google Now engine, it acquired DeepMind to bolster its capabilities.

However, others want to usurp its position. Microsoft recently set up a new special projects group within its R&D organization, according to insiders, which aims to take on the similar Google X unit, and is headed by Norman Whitaker, formerly deputy director of innovation at the US Defense Department's research arm DARPA. The new Microsoft initiative is working on "disruptive technologies that could benefit the company and society" and has a long list of targets, including machine learning/AI, mobility, big data, distributed computing and user experience design, according to a recent job advert.

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