"The Internet of Things for us is about the sale of microcontrollers. We think it is likely to follow a similar path to mobile phones," Warren East, CEO of processor intellectual property licensor ARM, said in an interview with EE Times during ARM TechCon.
East explained that the first microprocessors in cell phones were 32-bit devices that were required to spend most their time running the cellular communications protocol. The processor clock cycles that became available when the phone was not being used for a call were put to uses running early games on tiny displays. Now we are used to multiple processor cores on an SOC, and multiple processor chips in a mobile phone; a modem chip, an application processor, a connectivity chip.
So East expects a move to multiple cores in MCUs. "That alone would double the market size for ARM," he said.
The market is running at about 8 billion MCUs shipped per year across all applications, said East. In 2010 the ARM architecture had penetrated about 10 percent of the MCU market and in 2011 about 15 percent, he said. "2012 is looking like another good year. I think I would be disappointed if it wasn't up around 20 percent."
But will ARM expand its intellectual property remit into mixed-signal, wireless, MEMS and other IP, which are needed in wireless sensor networks? Or will ARM stick to the digital focus that has been its hallmark across its first 22 years of existence?
"A number of technology pieces are needed. And thinking holistically is vital to make things take off. Maybe we need to get involved at the technology level. But more important is to make standards happen," said East, clearly referring back to the announcement that ARM was becoming a leading member of the Weightless Special Interest Group.
The Weightless group is looking to drive standardization in the intelligent re-use of spectrum allocated to broadcast services to open up dedicated radio channels for machine-to-machine communications and the Internet of Things.
When specifically asked about mixed-signal IP, East said: "We're not a mixed-signal company," said East. On the other hand it must be remembered that ARM wasn't a graphics company until it bought Falanx Microsystems in June 2006.
No doubt that the number of solutions has to be reduced in the IoT universe, but there will still be a need for a flexible technology that will be able to address different standards, or at least one standard which requires flexibility. Dedicated hard wired solutions for modem signal processing won't offer this flexibility, and there is space for new IP providers who could be the equivalent of ARM in embedded DSP, like Simpulse (www.simpulse.fr). They offer a flexible and scalable coprocessor that can be programmed at a Matlab-like language level. This kind of solution will definitely be a key feature for future machine-to-machine communication.