Media Players to Get Unwired

Next week at the 3GSM World Congress 2006 in Spain, wireless will be on display in all its forms. Perhaps most unique will be seeing it in media players.

Sure, there have been many living room media players before with Wi-Fi built in, and even a couple of portable MP3 players with Wi-Fi, but San Jose, California-based PortalPlayer is hoping to make wireless a mainstay of  the  handheld personal media player (PMP) market.

The company’s main business has revolved around making the applications processors and firmware for running such products, including all the Apple iPod units except for the Shuffle, according to Gaurav Shah, Director of Marketing for PortalPlayer’s Personal Wireless Entertainment group. The company provides the processors in players from Samsung, iRiver, Yamaha and others — it powers the Sirius S50, the first portable receiver for the Sirius satellite radio service. It also has a personal media display division, working on home units and even always-on independent auxiliary LCD display systems that would run on the top of laptop cases, like that demonstrated with Windows Vista at CES 2006 in January.

Next week, the company is announcing partnerships with two companies based in England: CSR (formerly Cambridge Silicon Radio), maker of silicon for Bluetooth (BlueCore) and Wi-Fi (UniFi), and  Icera, which makes wireless software-based modems and chips. Working with these companies, PortalPlayer plans to bring Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and 3G connections to PMPs soon — perhaps even by the 2006 holiday shopping season.

“Spring of next year, definitely,” says Shah.

Shah says the wireless support will not be just an add-on, but will be engineered from the ground up to work with the PortalPlayer core components. That said, it will also be modular, using connections like SDIO or Compact Flash to link to the wireless hardware necessary in such a device. Specifically, look for the PortalPlayer PP5022 audio chip to integrate directly with the CSR Bluetooth and Wi-Fi silicon.

Key in the choice of partners is support for efficient power use. “We want to partner with providers that have architectures that use lower power,” says Shah. He adds that CSR’s experience with Bluetooth has helped them eliminate issues with coexisting with Wi-Fi in the same device — both Bluetooth and 802.11 use the 2.4GHz radio band.

Do PMP products even need the extra connectivity? “The executives at phone companies are exasperated that they can’t diversify revenue,” says Shah. “But they want to do it without hurting the voice cash flow. A media player that is purely data-centric, with voice enabled if desired, lets them operate at a level that enables the PMPs in the personal wireless space. They’ll have good multimedia playback without compromised functions.”

PortalPlayer will have functional prototypes of a PMP running on different types of wireless networks at the 3GSM show. No word on vendors who will support the wireless, but with PortalPlayer’s background with Apple, it suggests the possibility in the future of a Wi-Fi equipped iPod — with, hopefully, Bluetooth for the headphones, and Wi-Fi for synchronizing your multimedia.

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