In Japan, iPhone expands to iAlso watch TV

TOKYO — Among the gadget-happy Japanese, mobile TV is neither hype nor myth. Rather, it's what consumers here expect as a standard feature in any brand-new handset.

Nearly 90 percent of mobile handsets shipped in recent months in Japan already come with a mobile TV receiver, according to market researcher In-Stat.

Who knew?

EE Times has learned that Siano Mobile Silicon, a mobile digital TV chip supplier, Monday (Feb. 9) will disclose that its multistandard mobile digital TV receiver chip is designed into the recently launched iPhone 3G accessory in Japan.

Called “TV & Battery,” the new iPhone accessory unit — which looks like a small, sleek iPhone the size of a business card — is “a charger to go” and a mobile TV receiver in one.

By connecting the two (iPhone 3G and “TV & Battery” unit) via cable, a user can recharge iPhone 3G.

By connecting the two units via WiFi, a user can also watch TV (supporting Japan's ISDB-T One Seg television broadcasting standard) on the iPhone 3G handset, while the accessory unit tucked into a purse or shirt pocket wirelessly sends received mobile digital TV signals to it.

The accessory unit incorporates Siano's mobile TV chip and Marvell Technology Group's WiFi chip.

SoftBank BB and SoftBank Mobile, who designed the new “TV & Battery” accessory, may have found a way to get around one big hurdle every mobile operator in the world faces: Apple, and Apple alone, controls the iPhone design and nobody can tell Apple what to do.

But the Japanese operator, with Apple's blessing, came up with the accessory that squarely addresses iPhone 3G's two fundamental flaws in the local Japanese market: 1) the iPhone 3G is more power-hungry than other handsets, and 2) it lacks a mobile TV receiver.

Siano Mobile now hopes to ride on the coat-tails of the iPhone boom worldwide, taking the SoftBank's “TV & Battery” unit to the global market.

When the chip company meets its potential clients at the Mobile World Congress this week in Barcelona, Siano plans to pitch its mobile digital TV chip, also capable of receiving DVB-H and DVB-T, in a new “TV & Battery” accessory for iPhone 3G, should operators outside Japan decide to adopt this sort of accessory model for their iPhones.

In-Stat estimates that the number of one-seg handsets shipped in Japan in 2008 came to 30 million units. The percentage of handsets shipped with one-seg in Japan were in the low 60% range at the beginning of the year but later approached 90% of handsets shipped.

Replicating the Japanese mobile TV success outside Japan won't be easy, however.

“Mobile TV continues to struggle outside Japan as operators, broadcasters and subscribers try to come up with a business plan that makes mobile TV viable,” said David Chamberlain, principal analyst, responsible for wireless at In-Stat. “One thing we lack in the United States is a broadcast footprint… MediaFLO is available in a limited number of markets. Today's Congressional decision to delay the transition to digital broadcasting means it will take even longer for MediaFLO USA to obtain necessary spectrum to expand its coverage.”

Other options in the U.S. market such as plans for the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC)'s mobile digital TV or DVB-SH will take more time to develop.

Even in Spain and Italy, both considered to have done a good job making DVB-H available, “are still trying to find the best mix of free or subscription services,” observed Chamberlain.

Nevertheless, if broadcast coverage is available, “TV& Battery” would be an attractive proposition even outside Japan, according to the In-Stat analyst. After all, “iPhone users have proven to be very eager to purchase new applications and accessories,” he said.

These days, one often spots Japanese “salarymen” watching mobile TV in Tokyo subways.

Alon Ironi, CEO of Siano, sees the design win in the iPhone TV & Battery as a significant feat. “First, we weren't in the first wave of silicon that went into one-seg mobile TV phones in Japan. Second, Japanese customers always want to see your chip already designed into someone else's handsets. They want to be 100 percent sure that it works well,” Ironi said.

The latest design-win will give Siano a much needed toehold in the Japanese market. “We don't have to be shy when we talk to new customers in Japan,” he added.

SoftBank insisted on running intensive field trials of Siano's chip on a reference design in subways in Tokyo and Osaka, said Ironi. “They wanted to be absolutely certain of its quality, particularly going on the subway.”

Once, prototypes of the “TV & Battery” accessory became available, SoftBank did another round of intensive field testing, Ironi said.

Siano is the sole supplier of mobile TV chips for the iPhone 3G accessory in Japan.

Siano's mobile TV IC today comes in a multi-chip-package solution, integrating a tuner die and digital demodulation die into one package.

“We had a plan to develop a single-die solution, but two years ago decided not to pursue it” for cost and time-to-market reasons, he explained. “The tuner ” an analog die ” doesn't benefit from the geometry shrinkage of the digital chip.”

The iPhone 3G accessory, now available in Japan, can be sold with every new iPhone 3G and also as an after-market accessory.

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