At smart home, the success comes from consistent and reliable connectivity, and challenge comes from the fragmented market. Jeff Baer, Product Marketing Director of Broadband & Connectivity Group at Broadcom Corporation shared his observations on the smart home ecosystems, and IC design trends for hardware manufacturers.
What’s your strategy to enter the IoT battlefield?
In the IoT, everybody sees the huge number and potential. We’ve been engineering our WICED IoT architecture since 2011 to cater to the market, driving from the Software Development Kit layer down to the chip level. The real differentiator is not just providing a chip. Even if you give IoT customers great chips at a compelling price, they don’t exactly know what to do with that – it’s too complex to integrate. With the WICED architecture, we’ve built the complete environment to pull the software, API, and hardware together to create a complete and easy-to-implement hardware and software solution for time-to-market deployment. That’s what the companies in the United States and elsewhere are looking for. They don’t just look for the super chips or cost-effective solutions, but a complete solution can be easily integrated into existing products. This is one of the challenges when working with original equipment manufacturers who do not have extensive background in radio frequency, which is a core strength of ours.
Companies are always walking the line between a specialized solution for a specific problem or a general solution for a broad base of problems. Broadcom’s approach leans towards a general solution that can simplify the experience for our customers while still offering advanced and versatile technology to support a growing number of applications and devices.
In addition, we have complete product lines for both smart home gateways and node devices, such as thermostats, smoke detectors, air conditioners and light bulbs. We offer powerful SoCs for APs, smart home hubs, set-top boxes, and custom boxes. We are a very strong and leading vendor of connectivity SoCs of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for gateways and client devices at smart home. I think it’s our strength.
Regarding smart home gateways, our strategy is built around the idea that you don’t necessarily need a separate dedicated gateway – this just adds expense and complexity. Users can use STBs or AP/Routers, which they already have, as control boxes at home. Particularly in the US, the operators and cable suppliers like Comcast are monetizing their networking assets by selling additional value-added services in home monitoring, which is an ideal IoT application. Comcast uses the Comcast boxes as the control point, and provides many node devices like IP cameras and window sensors. They provide the home monitoring services via their infrastructure to those who already have gateway-like set-top boxes at home. We see this drives the IoT industry particularly in the US. It’s an ideal model that leverages the expensive infrastructure that the operators and their customers already have in place, versus investing in a new back-end topology. We also see the dynamics in other geographic regions as well.
What are the differences when designing home gateways and nodes?
We have full access to the whole portfolio of ARM cores as the basis of both our integrated CPUs and also connectivity devices. We use the right tool for the right job. That’s our philosophy.
Depending on the applications, we use high-end core if we need high performance, we use lower-end core when we need better power management. For gateways, it requires a lot of processing power for data processing. For nodes, you don’t have to process so much data, but are much more concerned about the size, power and thermal management. We use ARM Cortex-M3 as the basis of WICED, and our next generation will move to ARM Cortex R4 core.
On the gateway side, we offer ARM-based microprocessors integrated with wireless connectivity. ARM has a huge deployment base in gateways and client devices. Most of our products are designed based on ARM architecture. We also have a few very high-power products based on MIPS core. Our gateway devices primarily support Linux O/S, while the nodes support RTOS. mbed is one possible solution for IoT node devices based on ARM cores.We work closely with ARM to enable support for the mbed O/S, which is complementary to our WICED architecture.
Interoperability is a top challenge at smart home. How do you address the issue?
One of the biggest challenges to the mass adoption of IoT in the home is interoperability among home node devices. Oftentimes, you buy 10 devices in your house, and they don’t talk to each other at all, and the consumer winds up with 10 separate applications on their smartphone or tablet. By using the market-leading connectivity architecture across node, infrastructure and mobile devices, our customers can ensure that everything will be interoperable with each other to provide our customers with better user experiences.
There are numerous platforms available that address the issue of interoperability, including Apple’s HomeKit, Google’s Nest and ZigBee, all of which have advantages and all of which are currently Broadcom partners.
HomeKit, for example, offers the most seamless provisioning method and a clear, secure set of protocols to use for applications. As a long-time connectivity supplier to Apple, Broadcom understands the rigor involved in establishing technology leadership. HomeKit will provide the fantastic user experience iOS users have come to expect. In addition, certifications are core to ensuring a quality end-user experience. By ensuring HomeKit licensed products can interface with Wi-Fi Alliance or Bluetooth SIG certified controllers, users can rest assured they’ll have a reliable connected experience when using HomeKit products.
We see the networking topology has also changed. For example, the powerline communication technology (PLC) is getting more important in Europe, just because there are older homes where Wi-Fi cannot travel through the thick stone walls. We view different connectivity standards that solve similar problems like this as complementary. A complete network in the home will consist of a few different standards that interoperate, but not too many, or it becomes too complicated to configure and manage.
As a leading connectivity chip vendor, what are design trends?
The technological trends of semiconductors are smaller form factor, less power consumption, lower cost and faster processing speed. Certainly, Wi-Fi chipset is a relatively power hungry technology. We are working extensively on optimized power management.
We move from 65nm to 40nm to 28nm process to shrink the chip to improve the power profile. Also, our design lets the devices to be configured to not respond to many beacons so that they don’t have to awaken so often. By controlling the sleep time of the Wi-Fi node, it significantly improves the power utilization and optimizes the application. Regarding Bluetooth, our design lets Bluetooth do smaller amount of reporting when they are not in the high-duty cycle.
We have chips ideal for certain security applications like motion-triggered security cameras. Most of the time the Wi-Fi is completely off, and it doesn’t use any battery. The Wi-Fi camera takes some movie for video monitoring when it wakes up. The battery could last one to two years in this kind of application.
We also see increasing demand from secure systems. There is security mechanism inherently in the architecture. Wi-Fi itself has strong security like AES encryption in every chip. As you go to different layers, every layer actually brings in additional security. Take WICED for example, the smart SoC supports full HTTPS encryption, and the SSL/TLS supplicant runs on the microcontroller.
Having the right software and hardware are not the only challenges. If the system is not secure, sensitive data is at risk. Once data is in the cloud, the consumer does not know where it will go or how it will be used, which is a huge issue. However, that issue is one of trust, not security. They are often confused, but very different, and equally important. Broadcom is working hard to ensure that security doesn’t become an issue for our customers at least.
Broadcom is actively involved in addressing security concerns. The BCM20737 Bluetooth Smart system-on-a-chip (SoC) includes RSA 4000 bit encryption and decryption support, addressing the most critical security threats and ensuring user data is securely coded during transfer.
The BCM20737 chip and Broadcom's full portfolio of Bluetooth Smart solutions support iBeacon technology for better device detection and identity. iBeacon is a technology Apple introduced with iOS 7 that uses Bluetooth Low Energy and geofencing to provide apps a whole new level of micro-location awareness, such as trail markers in a park, exhibits in a museum, or product displays in stores. Users can, for example, instantly find their car keys by activating a smartphone application that detects a low-power transmitter on the keys.
What's the impact after Apple and Google entered the market?
We have strong partnership with both Apple and Google. From Broadcom’s point of view, we believe in both parties’ approaches. Having a strong ecosystem is the advantage to push the market forward.
Google is promoting Nest as a central hub in the connected home. We supply connectivity chips to Nest, who is one of our large IoT customers. However, Google faces a larger challenge because there is more fragmentation in the Android ecosystem. However, Apple has more control over their own ecosystem as a single supplier of multiple devices, and that gives them a bit of an advantage in advancing IoT.
HomeKit is a great example. If you look at the ecosystems that already exist, Apple’s is known to be robust and easy-to-use, expanding its ecosystem by setting a set of standards. HomeKit allows devices from different vendors work together in a consistent way. The HomeKit-supported products are designed to be consistent in user interface, and communicate with one another consistently. As a part of Apple’s ecosystem, they can utilize and benefit from the ecosystem. Apple has loyal customers—the key point is they have a robust and well-constructed ecosystem. Though the Android platform has larger customer base with around 80 percent of market share, it has more fragmentation at the same time. The fragmentation makes the job harder.