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IBM Thinks Smaller, Cooler at SuperComm

Armonk, N.Y.'s IBM Wednesday demonstrated its experiment to put smaller, less power-consumptive components into such wireless devices as personal digital assistants (PDAs) and cell phones at the SuperComm 2002 show in Atlanta.

Big Blue has developed microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) hardware that could help device manufacturers replace current components in devices, which consume more power and are generally more expensive. MEMS are microscopic electrical motors devices that fit on a microchip.

IBM created the MEMS components at a low temperature, which allows them to integrate them directly on chips, providing lower power and higher performance than building the components separately. The firm used a Bipolar Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (Bi-CMOS) compatible process to make MEMS resonators and filters that could replace passive components in wireless devices. Bi-CMOS combines two different types of circuits on a single piece of silicon. This grants the architecture both speedy performance and requires less power than traditional components.

Like many competing hardware makers, IBM and its researchers are confident that the wireless device supply chain has an increased demand for smaller, faster-operating devices that absorb less power and therefore last longer. Handheld makers such as Palm and Handspring have recently focused on convergent devices such as communicators to combine the versatility of cell phones with organizers.

But the call for smaller sizes and increased functionality is expected to grow: IDC said smart handheld shipments will increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17 percent from 14.6 million in 2001 to 31.6 million by 2006. As the Palms and Compaqs are called upon for smaller, smarter devices, components manufacturers, such as IBM, are striving to accommodate them.

IBM's RF (radio frequency) MEMS development could allow device manufacturers to roll out jazzier wireless devices. Device manufacturers could add functions to handle more bands, giving consumers better wireless coverage and service. They could also add new functions to support video-streaming or faster data transmission.

RF MEMS would also allow for smaller receivers inside handsets, and microscopic tuning forks works to filter out unwanted frequencies, resulting in a stronger signal and a clearer conversation.

Dave Seeger, senior manager of silicon science and process technology at IBM Research, said his company is simply trying to keep up with the rollout of broadband wireless networks, which demand stronger processing and power.