Chip makers hope to give IoT a push with power-efficient components

A new generation of components promise to improve battery life of devices next year

Low battery consumption will be a key to success for IoT products, and chip makers are working on more frugal processors and microcontrollers to make that happen.

Improved energy efficiency was a common theme at the Electronica conference in Munich this week, where next-generation IoT chipsets were plentiful.

Energy efficiency "is very important indeed, because in many cases you are talking about devices that run on batteries and the battery life has an effect on how affordable and practical it will be to deploy them," said Matt Hatton, director at Machina Research.

San Jose-based Atmel was at the conference to launch the SAM L21 microcontroller family, which consumes one-third the power of comparable products in the market today, according to the company. Limited numbers of the product will be available from February, for use in consumer, industrial and portable medical products, Atmel said.

Toshiba, meanwhile, is going after smartwatches, bracelets, glasses and rings as well as activity monitors with the TZ1021MBG processor. It's designed to help devices be as small, lightweight and power-efficient as possible. Toshiba did not, however, say how much power the processor will consume. The product will start to ship this month, and mass production is slated to start in March next year.

Most existing wearables suffer from bad battery life, so any improvement in that regard would be a step in the right direction.

The Atmel and Toshiba products use technology from ARM, highlighting how the U.K.-based company has managed to build on its smartphone success and establish a beachhead in the market for IoT devices.

IoT represents a potentially huge market. Market research company Gartner says there will be 4.9 billion "things," such as appliances and sensors, connected to the Internet in 2015.

But for chip manufacturers, getting into the market isn't just about product development. Making it easy for developers of applications and hardware to use their products is equally important. Just as apps have played a large role in the popularity of smartphones, they are needed for the IoT market to take off.

"There is a requirement to smooth the path," Hatton said.

For example, semiconductor maker Freescale has started a beta program to help jump-start the development of IoT products. The company said it will offer developers Thread software and a beta development kit. Thread is an IP-based mesh networking protocol used for connecting devices in the home. Early adopters can start product planning and development now, and start delivering products next year, Freescale said.

Competing vendor Renesas Electronics says it has developed a processor board based on ARM's recently launched mbed IoT device platform, which aims to speed up the development of embedded systems.

The chip manufacturers are working to expand partnership programs in an effort to build an ecosystem around their components. Broadcom this week said it had signed up more than 40 new companies, including module manufacturers, independent design houses and original device manufacturers, to its program.

The increasing availability of customized chipsets is a sign that the much-hyped IoT sector is becoming more mature. But the launch of apps with IoT connectivity is also important for the development of the market. For example, SAP this week launched three products for maintenance, logistics and manufacturing.

"The verticalization is something that's applicable across the board," Hatton said. "Lots and lots of companies are looking at how to make IoT more appropriate for smaller organizations with particular needs, rather than thinking about just generic offerings."

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Mikael Ricknäs

IDG News Service
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