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Redesigning Mobile from the Chip Up

A chip maker is offering a software platform that seeks to integrate apps and devices.
April 27, 2011

Hardware manufacturers are building more software than ever before. Chip maker Marvell, for example, plans to launch Kinoma, a software platform complete with apps that can give people a consistent user experience across multiple apps—and even devices.

Pulling Apps Together: Kinoma Play, a product built on a new software platform from chip manufacturer Marvell, aims to better connect the apps on a device. For example, the dashboard shown above can accept updates from any app the user has installed.

“The motivation is that hardware is not just a chip anymore,” says Peter Hoddie, vice president of the Kinoma platform at Marvell. Hoddie ran Kinoma before Marvell acquired it, and he is overseeing the launch of the new version of the software. “People making hardware are expected to deliver a lot of software,” he says, because to deliver plenty of features on a low-powered system like a phone, the close integration of software and hardware can really help.

Kinoma Play, a product built on the Kinoma platform, is designed to demonstrate Kinoma’s power and provide a starting place for developers who want to extend the platform further. The software can function as the center of a user’s interaction with a device, and it comes loaded with more than 50 apps built by Kinoma. (It can also incorporate apps from third-party developers.)

But Hoddie says that what sets Kinoma Play apart is the care its developers took to tie apps together and give users a consistent, high-performance experience regardless of what they’re using the phone for. “It’s a different take on how apps behave,” he says. “We have a world where the apps are cooperating and combining with each other.”

For example, Kinoma Play includes a photo viewer that scrolls smoothly through hundreds of pictures, loads images at full resolution, and allows users to zoom in deep with the touch of a finger. When another app calls for viewing photos, the platform is designed to tie into that photo viewer so the user can retain Kinoma Play’s look and controls.

Other features of Kinoma Play more explicitly pull apps together. If a user searches for “Nirvana,” for example, the results will come not just from Google but also from other apps the user has downloaded, such as Twitter, YouTube, Pandora, and Wikipedia.

Hoddie notes that these features will run even more smoothly when the company finishes integrating the Kinoma platform with Marvell’s hardware.

Marvell’s acquisition of Kinoma allows it to offer customers “differentiation and customization,” says technology and strategy consultant Chetan Sharma, president of Chetan Sharma Consulting. In other words, Marvell’s customers can use its chips, and by extension Kinoma, to make their products appear different from the many competing devices on the market. They can also use parts of the software to tailor how users will experience a device.

Hoddie says that those who adopted the Kinoma platform before Marvell acquired the company have already demonstrated many ways it can be used. For example, the Japanese mobile company SoftBank put the software on some of its devices, making it the first thing users saw when they started up a new phone. Japanese mobile operator NTT Docomo, on the other hand, selected just Kinoma’s media-playing capabilities. “Vendors can decide how integrated they want to be,” Hoddie says.

Marvell plans to extend the Kinoma platform even further. The software has been deployed on both Windows Mobile and Android. Beyond that, Hoddie says, Marvell hopes to see Kinoma on other types of low-powered devices that could never run the more processing-intense Android platform. For example, Hoddie says, a device such as a pass-through power monitor with a digital dimmer switch can run Kinoma, though obviously without many of the interface’s bells and whistles.

If Kinoma runs on these other devices, Hoddie says, it opens the way to even more integration. The common platform would make it easy to write software that would let users control household devices from their smart phones, for example, and Marvell’s chips could theoretically power both. “Part of the Marvell strategy is to recognize the need to really cross platforms,” he says.

What’s most important, says Al Hilwa, program director of applications development software for the market intelligence firm IDC, is the extent to which Marvell can create compelling synergies between devices using the Kinoma platform, so that companies clearly understand what advantages it offers them.

Marvell is not alone among hardware manufacturers in expanding its software offerings. Greg Galvin, CEO of Kionix, a company that makes sensors for devices including smart phones, says that device manufacturers are under pressure to include a much wider variety of hardware than they did in the past. Because mobile devices are relatively low-powered, it often helps to use software designed specifically for the hardware in the device. (Kionix, for example, sells sensors that come with software that can process and interpret the data they collect.) 

To encourage Kinoma’s spread, Marvell isn’t tying it exclusively to its chips. Though the company will make sure the software runs well on its own silicon, the platform itself will be open-source and free for manufacturers to use on their devices.

Hoddie says that Marvell is preparing to roll out the current version of Kinoma to some end users and developers for beta testing over the summer.

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