Smart home is regarded as fast-growing and booming in the IoT market, driving dramatic evolution and growth opportunities for the chip business over the next decade. The falling cost of adding sensing and communications to consumer products implies that a typical family home, in a mature affluent market, could contain several hundred smart objects by 2022, according to Gartner, Inc. The IC suppliers are major drivers to propel the market forward by improving system performance and reducing cost. Also, we see new types of home controllers boost the market scale and possibly influence the design trends.
Whether the smart home is a castle in the air or not, those best-practice suppliers are laying the foundation with future-proof designs and value propositions.
The smart home gateway, a must-have element in the connected home, is the control center of sensors, or so-called nodes. According to ABI Research, nearly 30 million home gateways will be shipped annually worldwide by 2020, up from 5.1 million in 2014. The gateways will include 97 million RF ICs. The silicon vendors offer a wide array of solutions from edge to cloud to drive the IoT evolution.
Currently, the key component market of smart home gateways is dominated by 20 to 30 IC suppliers. Their competitiveness is built on their core competence, extensive background in radio frequency, and comprehensive product portfolio. Their chips and modules are applied in intelligent hubs, end-to-end devices and cloud servers for the whole ecosystem Not just selling chips, they provide reference designs and turnkey solutions to address time-to-market and cost-effective demands. Besides, they are also strong ecosystem partners, and solution providers for service providers. They create profit with either cost savings or added value.
Facing the fast-changing and uncertain market demands, the silicon vendors position themselves as one-stop and time-to-market solution provider. They offer a wide range of portfolios, including chips, modules and development kits. There is no universal solution by far. The companies keep a flexible strategy to serve different market segments. “We offer not only chips but also solutions to solve customers’
problems in a flexible way, ” said Rich Chen, FAE Manager, Semiconductor Sales and Application Department at Texas Instruments (TI).
Joseph Bousaba, Senior Director, Product Management at Qualcomm Atheros, commented, “Facing the fragmented market, our strategy is to deliver the right mix of different connectivity and computing capabilities to address the varying needs of the Internet of Everything (IoE).”
Jeff Baer, Product Marketing Director of Broadband & Connectivity Group at Broadcom Corporation, explained, “Depending on the applications, we use high-end core if we need high performance, and lower-end core when we need better power management. On the gateway side, it requires a lot of processing power for data processing.”
Companies are always walking the line between a specialized solution for a specific problem, and a general solution for a broad base of problems. Baer of Broadcom indicated, “Our approach leans towards a general solution that can simplify the experience for our customers while still offering versatile technologies to support a growing number of applications and devices.”
Smaller size, lower power consumption and less cost are three major challenges in the semiconductor industry. The traditional architecture is an independent MPU plus external memory and connectivity chips. There is an increasing number of integrated SoCs to eliminate the tradeoff between performance and cost. Generally, the processors are priced from $3 to $10. The integrated SoCs are claimed to be at least 10 percent lower in BOM cost compared with the traditional architecture.
Take MediaTek for example, the company’s approach is to offer integrated SoCs that combine processing and connectivity functions for retail and broadband routers, IoT gateway, and media routers. The design of embedded Flash and RAM in the chip drives down the cost for manufacturers.
TI’s approach is to offer wide-ranging solutions based on general-purpose MPUs and ARM architecture to its clients for vertical applications, including smart home. “Our solution features scalable architecture with rich peripherals, competitive price and performance for whether home or industrial uses. Our Cortex-A8 solutions like AM335x series can deliver high performance at the price level of ARM9 and ARM11. Also, our products feature longer life cycle than those designs applied for the consumer market.”
Bousaba of Qualcomm Atheros said, “Low power is essential for home hubs, as many of them are likely to be placed in large appliances or other products that target international energy efficiency standards.” Baer of Broadcom indicated, “Certainly, Wi-Fi is a relatively power hungry technology. We are working extensively on optimized power management by moving from 65nm to 40nm to 28nm process to shrink the chip for improving the power profile.”
ARM-Based Architecture Dominates
The key components, decisive for functionality and cost of the gateways, consist of microprocessor (MPU), Microcontroller (MCU), network connectivity and power management ICs. ARM has a huge deployment base in gateways and client devices, taking the lion’s share.
“ARM-based structure is ideal for smart home gateways because of its open structure,” said Jason Yang, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Microcontroller Segment, Greater China and South Asia Region of STMicroelectronics. STMicroelectronics offers ARM-based solutions comprised of microcontrollers, power management and wireless connectivity ICs and modules in an affordable way to accelerate market adoption.
At present, the major smart home gateway MPUs are designed based on ARM Cortex-A5/A7/A8/A9 cores. They support UART, SPI, MMC, I2C (Inter-Integrated Circuit), GPIO, and USB OTG interfaces for expanding options of memory, connectivity, etc.
The ARM-based architecture is the mainstream nowadays, supporting two major operating systems (O/S)—RTOS and Linux. The combination of ARM-based MPU and Linux O/S systems is popular for the systems requiring strong computing power and smart algorithm. SR Tsai, General Manager of MediaTek's Wireless Connectivity and Networking Business Unit, explained, “ARM processors have better ecosystem support in embedded devices as well as better pricing and power consumption than x86-based solutions. The MT7623 and MT7683 support Linux, so the ecosystem can leverage existing RD expertise to enter the smart home segment.”
Malik Saadi, VP, Strategic Technology of ABI Research said, “Proprietary RTOS platforms based on open source code are dominant. The trend is very similar to what happened in the mobile phone market at its early stage of development in the early 2000s. However as things get smarter and accommodate more features for better experiences, the industry will move to more advanced operating systems.”
Besides ARM-based architecture, there are solutions based on x86 and MIPS platforms. It’s hard to say which platform is more competitive in the long run as IoT has been evolving. Saadi of ABI Research explained, “The microcontroller technology for IoT is still in its early stage of developments, and the industry is not yet fixed on who are the winners and losers. Moreover, the MIPS architecture has been increasingly optimized for IoT. A number of other suppliers have also chosen it to develop proprietary architecture.“
New Forms of Gateways
Although we have yet to see killer applications at smart home, we have seen technological convergence and new innovations that may shape the future.
The smart home gateway is defined as a central hub to control end devices via wired and wireless home networking technologies. New types of smart home gateways have appeared in the market recently like set-top box, smart TV, wireless thermostat, and network camera with sensor hub like Icontrol’s Piper.
Jonathan Collins, Principal Analyst at ABI Research, indicated, “There is potential for gateway functionality to increasingly be embedded within smart home devices. Canary and Piper already combine gateway and video camera features, while there is clear potential for Google’s Nest Thermostat and Apple TV to bring gateway functionality for additional connected smart home devices.”
There will be variable forms of home hubs while discrete gateways are still the mainstream. IHS estimates that the vast majority of smart home gateways are standalone gateways, which are forecast to account for 95 percent of the market in 2018. Niall Jenkins, Research Manager for Smart Home at IHS said, “Whilst this is forecast to remain the case over the next five years, there will be an increase in the shipments of gateways integrated into routers and set-top boxes.”
Bousaba of Qualcomm Atheros commented, “Control and automation may be appropriately managed through cloud-based solutions for some applications, but there are most certainly many applications where device-to-device communication—direct or through local hub is more ideal.”
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