Chip Vendors Still at Odds over Android

Feb 8 2011

NFC chip supplier Inside Secure is again charging that Google’s latest Android operating system, known as Gingerbread, favors chips from rival NXP Semiconductors and continues to pitch its own "Open NFC" software as an alternative.

France-based Inside today announced a new version of its open-source NFC software stack that it said will work with Gingerbread and the NFC application-programming interface, or API, Google has adopted. That API is based on a software stack from NXP.

Google incorporated the NXP stack, which is also open source, into Android and is using it for the Samsung-made Nexus S NFC smartphone it launched in December. Many more Android-based NFC phones are expected this year, from Samsung and other handset makers.

Netherlands-based NXP has rejected the notion that Gingerbread favors its chips over those of other vendors, noting that it has donated its stack to Google and since it’s open source, it can be adapted by competitors. Jeff Miles, director of mobile transactions for NXP, told NFC Times after the December announcement of Google’s support for the NXP software stack that while the stack supports NXP’s NFC chips in firmware, this lower layer can be rewritten for other vendors' chips without difficulty. Miles, when contacted today, said he could not comment because of a quiet period in advance of NXP’s next earnings report.

But in its press release Monday, Inside contended that the current Gingerbread operating system is tied to NXP’s chips "throughout the stack." That means Android handset makers would have to have the stack substantially rewritten in order to use another vendor’s NFC chips, or they would have to put a second software stack in their phones, said Inside. The NFC stack is made up of layers of software that connect the NFC chip and secure element with the phone's NFC apps.

All of the major handset makers will eventually want to have at least two sources of supply for their NFC chips, said Inside’s chief operating officer Charles Walton. So NXP’s gambit to "get a proprietary lock" on NFC chips for Android phones will not work, though it will cause headaches for handset makers, he charged.

"Samsung, LG, HTC and Motorola all require alternative, dual sourcing of chips," he told NFC Times. "It’s going to come in the next six to nine months, (but) you’re not going to want to deal with two stacks or three stacks (on the same phone)."

Still, Inside worries that until NFC phones are mass produced, Android handset makers would make do with a single supplier of NFC chips and that supplier could be NXP.

Update: NXP issued a statement Tuesday to NFC Times, appearing to say that the direct tie-in for NXP chips in the Gingerbread NFC software stack is only in a thin hardware abstraction layer that could be easily changed to support other vendors' chips, though that is not clear from the statement. But NXP added that it was the "only supplier to provide the full stack in open source, including the HAL (hardware abstraction layer)."

"NXP is committed to the open-source development of NFC APIs and protocol stacks," the vendor said in the statement. "We’re working with partners from across the ecosystems, which include many parties, such as Google, handset manufacturers, mobile network operators, to support the development of NFC devices and applications." End update.

Inside said in its release Monday that its alternative NFC software stack for Android, "Open NFC," includes only the "very thin" hardware abstraction software layer, or firmware, that is specific to its chips. That layer can be easily rewritten, noted Inside, which bills its software as the "first truly hardware-independent, open-source NFC protocol stack."

But that is more marketing hype than reality, argues Christian Andresen, head of the NFC business unit at Germany-based Stollmann, an NFC protocol stack provider. Inside has tried to give away earlier versions of its open-source NFC software stack for Android and other platforms and these, like the latest version of "Open NFC," are part of an effort to tie handset makers to Inside’s NFC chips, he said–just as NXP is doing.

"Yes, it's not good if a software stack is written to support only one chip," Andresen told NFC Times. "With open source, everyone can change it. This is the statement both NXP and Inside are using, but from my knowledge, both software (stacks) are only supporting (their own) chips."

Stollmann has produced a software stack for Android phones for a third NFC chip maker, STMicroelectronics. But Andresen said Stollmann, which is not a chip supplier, could support NFC chips from multiple suppliers. It does not give its software stack away.

Following the announcement in December that Google would use NXP’s software stack for Gingerbread, Stollmann had tried to form a group of competing vendors to agree on an "aligned API" for Android and then propose that new API to Google. But the attempts to form the group, which was to include Inside and STMicroelectronics, went nowhere.

Now all of the vendors appear to be resigned to follow the Google-NXP API, at least for the latest version of Android. That API is small but is expected to be expanded soon. 

Inside, however, said its press release is really a call to Google to change the stack for the next version of Android, according to Walton. He contends Google only chose NXP’s stack for Gingerbread because it wanted to release the Nexus S as soon as possible and the phone’s maker, Samsung, had already been working with NXP’s stack. Trusted Logic, owned by France-based smart card vendor Gemalto, is listed as a co-developer of the NXP stack.

"They (Google) were trying to get out there and start the ball rolling; that’s good," said Walton. "Now is the time to sit down at the table, Google plus the major players in the industry, to say the next release of Android should be open. Move to a stack that is not hardware dependent."

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