Helping digit-ize Google phones

Times Staff Writer

The first of the so-called Google phones is controlled using a method that’s finally gaining momentum in mobile computing: swiping a finger across the screen.

The touch sensors in T-Mobile’s G1 phone, which hits the market Oct. 23, are made by Synaptics Inc., a little-known but influential Silicon Valley company co-founded in 1986 by a Caltech professor.

For the two decades since, Synaptics has championed the use of the finger as a navigation tool for computers. It develops many of the sensors behind laptop touch pads, digital media players and high-end remote controls.

But touch screens were rarely seen in cellphones -- that is, until Apple Inc.'s iPhone hit the market in June 2007.

The Apple device lets users scroll through pages of text or photos and type on an on-screen keyboard with one finger, or expand or shrink files with two fingers.


Analysts who have taken apart the iPhone don’t think Synaptics’ technology powers the innovative touch screen. Apple and Synaptics won’t say. But the device’s growing popularity helped Synaptics’ mission of bringing touch screens to the mainstream.

Over the last six months, the firm has launched four phones with its touch-screen technology. And another prominent one is coming soon: The T-Mobile G1, which is made by HTC Corp. and runs Google Inc.'s Android operating system for mobile phones.

Putting touch technology on cellphones wasn’t widely embraced at first. That has all changed, said Andrew Hsu, a product marketing manager at the company, adding that Synaptics no longer has to sell hardware manufacturers on the value of incorporating a touch screen.

The number of cellphones with touch screens is expected to triple by 2010, to 362 million from 120 million last year, research firm ISuppli Corp. said. In comparison, cellphones without touch screens are expected to increase by only 6%, to 1.12 billion from 1.05 billion.

Synaptics is hiring accordingly. The company has added 120 people since the beginning of the year to bring the total to 443, with new employees working on a variety of products, including mobile phones. Half the employees have an engineering background.

The company was co-founded by Carver Mead, a professor emeritus at Caltech, and Federico Faggin, a former Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel Corp. engineer who worked on the design of the first microprocessor.

Synaptics found its niche in the early 1990s, when it began supplying the touch pads for laptops. In 2000, it began selling touch technology for digital media players.

As early as 2005, Synaptics began putting its touch technology in mobile phones. But it had trouble convincing cellphone manufacturers that a touch screen had clear benefits for customers.

“The idea that you could use your phone to do anything other than make phone calls was foreign,” Hsu said.

In 2006, a year before the iPhone was unveiled, Synaptics demonstrated a concept phone called the Onyx, a remote-control-looking device navigated by the fingertip. In January 2007, the LG Prada, with Synaptics technology, became the first touch-screen cellphone to reach the market, but it didn’t catch on the way the iPhone did six months later.

Last year, when Google started encouraging companies to join the Open Handset Alliance to collectively develop a new cellphone software platform, Synaptics signed up. Hsu said cellphones with touch screens become more useful if the software takes advantage of the technology.

“The Google people understood the software side and worked on applications from the get-go, rather than bolt things on at the last second,” he said.

The G1 and future Android-powered phones are aiming for the same smart-phone consumer market dominated now by Research in Motion’s BlackBerry phones and the iPhone.

Besides the touch screen, the G1 is also controlled by a track ball and a keyboard.

It’s unclear how the new touch-screen cellphones will sell. Synaptics said its mobile-phone business made up 13% of its $361 million in revenue in fiscal 2008, which ended in June. The company’s shares gained 48 cents to $30.22 on Tuesday and are up 10% since the beginning of the year.

Industry analysts say that although Synaptics has been a big beneficiary of the recent excitement around touch technology for cellphones, its long-term success is uncertain.

“More and more competitors will be coming quickly in the coming months because the handset opportunity continues to grow,” said Jeff Schreiner, a research analyst with San Diego-based Capstone Investments.

He said those competitors, from places such as Taiwan, would try hard to offer sensors at lower prices and cut into Synaptics’ business.

But Hsu said that Synaptics was ready to do battle with any newcomers and that projects such as the G1 show off the technology it’s been working for decades to perfect.

“Google has the ability to revolutionize the cellphone industry like the IBM personal computer changed the landscape of the PC industry,” he said. “What’s exciting for Synaptics is that our technology becomes part of this new platform.”