If we assume that the IoT market is picking up momentum, can we add the corollary that IoT processors are keeping pace and the semiconductor industry is hitting the jackpot?
If so, where are these IoT processors? Is there a table somewhere that lists the top 10 IoT processors? What makes one IoT processor more successful than others?
These aren’t unreasonable questions.
IoT, after all, has been the flavor of the month among chip vendors for several years. Riding the coattails of IoT, they have been eagerly shopping their product portfolios while touting their growth potential.
I began seeking out this elusive Top Ten on my own, mainly for the purpose of boning up on the subject of IoT processors. The more people I talked to and the more white papers and press releases I read on the topic, the more ambiguous my potential story became. I couldn’t pin down industry analyst who was comfortable telling me who’s winning or losing.
I’ve come to understand that there are several reasons why the state of the market is still in such a flux and no such list as “top 10 IoT processors” exists.
First, the IoT market — no matter how you slice and dice it — isn’t much different from the embedded system market. Yes, these “embedded” IoT devices are “connected.” But just as MCU vendors have struggled to figure out how to serve the fragmented embedded market for decades, so will IoT processor suppliers struggle. The IoT market is so fragmented that it’s hard to find one winning processor.
Second, the unprecedented number of M&As in the chip industry in the last 18 months is also at play.
Tony Massimini, chief of technology at Semico Research Corporation, said, “There have been more M&As in the last two years than what we experienced in the past 20 plus years.” No wonder everything is still in flux.
A chip vendor that just acquired another company is typically busy reviewing a newly added product portfolio, comparing its own, and trying to come up with a strategy, Massimini said.
A case in point is Microchip’s acquisition of Atmel. Combined, they command several different MCU product lines and connectivity elements. As Massimini pointed out, it remains to be seen “how they organize themselves” in the IoT market.
Another example is Cypress Semiconductor.
Cypress announced last month a $550 million deal to acquire Broadcom Corp.’s Wireless Internet of Things (IoT) business. The deal includes Broadcom’s Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Zigbee IoT product lines and intellectual property. It also includes Broadcom’s WICED brand and developer ecosystem.
Oh, and by the way, Cypress also bought Spansion last year.
Massimini noted that before all this happened, Spansion, added to its embedded flash business by acquiring MCU and analog businesses from Fujitsu.
Again, who knows how — or how soon — Cypress’ new stable of IoT-related properties will coalesce into a coherent strategy for the company’s great IoT processor quest?
Meanwhile, does this mean that IoT is no longer an interest of Broadcom (formerly known as Avago, before it bought Broadcom)?
Broadcom, contacted by EE Times to explain the situation, declined an interview. Mike Demler, a senior analyst at The Linley Group, noted that last December, Broadcom announced sampling of a new 2.4GHz WICED family for Bluetooth and 802.15.4. Dempler noted that they “appear to be very competitive with other Cortex-M4-based IoT chips on the market. Broadcom is apparently the first company to announce manufacturing in 40nm embedded flash, which could provide a performance and integration advantage.”
But of course, now that Broadcom is selling WICED to Cypress, Demler said, “Yes, it looks like they’re exiting the IoT business.”
Third, there’s the matter of what-the-heck. How do we define an IoT processor?
“By our definition,” Demler said, “an IoT processor must provide some built-in connectivity function, even if it’s just the wireless baseband.”
The Linley Group excludes from the category standard embedded processors and MCUs that many vendors now call IoT processors, since those devices have served for many years in non-Internet-connected applications. “So, integrated wireless connectivity is a key differentiator,” Demler said.
Those who lack that capability may combine their processors with a separate radio in a multichip package, suggested Demler, “but that increases cost, footprint, and possibly power.” The radio chip might also be from a third-party supplier, but then, “it raises support issues.”