With phones in its pocket, ARM eyes the Internet of Things

July 22, 2014, 9:13 PM UTC
The Freescale Kinetis KL03 microcontroller is built on ARM Cortex-M0+ processor designs.
The Freescale Kinetis KL03 microcontroller is built on ARM Cortex-M0+ processor designs.
Courtesy: Freescale/ARM

ARM, the British company that makes instruction set architectures for computer processors, is certainly not a household name—not the way Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android are, anyway. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less ubiquitous. If you’ve got a smartphone in your pocket, there’s a good—no, make that very good—chance that it’s ARM-powered.

The company’s microprocessor technology can now be found in more than 95 percent of the world’s smart handsets, it said, not to mention a sizable proportion of the smart TVs, wearables, gaming consoles, and automotive gadgetry. More than 50 billion ARM-based chips are out in the world right now, quietly powering much of the technological world.

So what does a highly successful company do once it has reached the top? Find another mountain to climb. The frontier known as the “Internet of Things,” or IoT for short, continues to grow as more appliances, vehicles, machines, and objects gain wireless Internet access. The field is getting bigger every year, and ARM has already begun making inroads.

“There’s a real opportunity here,” said Ian Ferguson, ARM’s vice president of segment marketing. “If we have technology embedded in a bunch of things, clearly there’s an opportunity to be more efficient. But the question also becomes how to improve quality of life.”

There are now roughly 13 billion wirelessly connected devices in the world, according to Cisco estimates. By 2020, there will be more than 30 billion, ABI Research predicts. Revenue for technology and services pertaining to the Internet of Things is expected to reach $7.3 trillion by 2017. The future of the global technology market, it seems, is at stake.

‘It might be controversial’

It can be difficult to describe ARM’s efforts for the Internet of Things because the company does not actually manufacture the chips for which it is known. Rather, it licenses its designs to a number of semiconductor companies, which in turn build chips based on them.

AMD (AMD), Broadcom (BRCM), and Qualcomm (QCOM) are among many licensees of ARM’s technology, which makes its way into consumers’ hands when original equipment manufacturers like Samsung, HTC, or Sony (SNE) use those companies’ chips to create new phones, tablets and other devices.

“You need a very different chip in a phone, a smart watch and a connected microwave oven,” Ferguson said. “We provide the core building blocks, and partners take the technology and harness it to connected things. It’s really that customization that’s key.”

With such a strong presence on phones—consumers’ preferred gateway to the Internet today—ARM believes it is in a natural position to enable further connectivity.

“Using the phone as a conduit for information about yourself and your surroundings will be a big area in the Internet of Things,” Ferguson said. Some examples? Apps or services for monitoring asthma and heart health.

ARM’s technology is also finding its way into wearables such as headgear and smart bands, he noted. “That whole area is going to move forward—you’ll see those wearables become a more integrated part of the experience.”

A larger opportunity lies in business, where connected devices are used to reduce cost and improve efficiency. Manufacturing and oil and gas exploration are two examples of applications with strong potential, Ferguson said. “You’ve got highly valued assets, so preventative mechanical services can help improve efficiency by detecting problems before they break down,” he added.

In cities, public lighting and trash collection are functions that can be more effective through the use of embedded sensor technology. Ferguson cited the success of BigBelly Solar‘s intelligent trash receptacles as one example.

Even street parking is covered. “In San Francisco, some areas have parking spaces that can detect if they’re empty or not, and you can book them on the phone—that’s an efficiency sort of play,” Ferguson said. “But if the city knows some areas are getting booked up more frequently, there might be new valuable services they could sell there. You might even see the pricing change based on availability. It might be controversial.”

That technology is already under evaluation in several cities including Los Angeles and Berkeley, both in California.

Narrower than a human hair

ARM’s answer for all of this is its Cortex-M microprocessor series, which is notable for its energy efficiency and miniaturization and targets wearable technology and embedded applications. (The Cortex-M0+ processor, for instance, can fit within the width of the average human hair.)

In June, the company announced the establishment of new CPU Design Center in Hsinchu, Taiwan—its first such center in Asia—which will be dedicated to the series. It also held an IoT Tech Seminar in Singapore this month.

“I think ARM is going to play a big role in the Internet of Things,” said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst with The Linley Group. “It already offers a lot of good technology for very low-cost, low-power applications.”

Working in the company’s favor: a wide array of partners. “This being a new market, it will require a lot of innovation to get started,” Gwennap said. “ARM and its partners have a leg up.”

Still, ARM may confront challenges that it wouldn’t otherwise face in the smartphone market it dominates. “All smartphones want to run pretty much the same software,” Gwennap said. Internet of Things devices may not work the same way. “In the IoT, I don’t think we’ll see apps running on a lightbulb, for example. There will be more diversity there, and more opportunity for other companies to play a role.”

One of those companies: Intel. The leading microprocessor company (INTC) has been ramping up its efforts for the Internet of Things, including establishing an IoT subgroup with sectors devoted to retail, transportation, manufacturing and industrial applications, and smart homes and buildings.

“We believe the IoT is a huge transformational opportunity,” said Eric Free, a vice president within Intel’s Internet of Things subgroup. “We expect there will be billions and billions of intelligent connected devices that will essentially bring data from a variety of business and industrial environments into the cloud and unlock a ton of business transformations.”

Intel’s Quark, Atom, Core, and Xeon lines of microprocessors are each playing a role in the Internet of Things, Free said. The company is also working to promote security and standards—it helped found the Industrial Internet Consortium—and shape public policy around the topic, he added.

‘We’re only just scratching the surface’

ARM is also concerned about standardization, of course. The company pitches its chip designs as a way not only to enable Internet of Things devices, but also as a way to avoid what it calls the “Internet of Silos,” where data is created but not shared among service providers.

“Clearly what we need to do as an industry across verticals is look at how all these things connect together and communicate information in a sensible way,” Ferguson said. “Besides security, we have to work on standards.”

Toward that end, ARM has been heavily involved in efforts such as 6LoWPAN, which concerns the interoperability of networks of low-power devices and today’s dominant Internet protocol, and the Constrained Application Protocol (CoAP), an Internet protocol tailored to simple electronics, he said.

“I think they are being a fantastic enabler to all the semiconductor companies,” said Alfonso Velosa III, a research director with Gartner. “The Internet of Things requires low power and an ability to enable a broad variety of programmers. ARM has provided a common language.”

With a three-pronged approach—microchips, software, and “a very good ecosystem,” Velosa said—ARM will continue to shape the evolving standards and architecture of the Internet of Things.

“A lot of people think the Internet of Things is just smart refrigerators and toasters,” Ferguson said. “The bigger opportunity is, how do you improve people’s lives? We’re only just scratching the surface on what technology for good can do.”