OSLO – Svenn-Tore Larsen is standing in a cramped glass room at the top of Holmenkollen, an Olympic ski jump on the fringe of Oslo. The chief executive is telling a dozen international journalists about the future for Nordic Semiconductor, his small but ambitious chip company.
On one level it’s a bizarre moment in high tech marketing. On another, it’s a perfect metaphor.
In this room with intoxicating views of both a bustling downtown Oslo and the open Norway countryside, Larsen is launching his latest chips, integrated 2.4 GHz RF and ARM Cortex M0 SoCs. He’s telling reporters there’s plenty of room for growth on the consumer wireless frontier they target. He foresees by 2015 a market of “app-cessories” using his chips to link over Bluetooth Low Energy, ANT, proprietary or other wireless protocols to more than a billion handsets and connected TVs that will be shipping by 2015.
Indeed, it’s a stunning view of the next wave of computing and communications full of opportunity. It’s also a bit dizzying. A small company like Nordic could easily tumble and fall prey to forces much bigger than itself.
Giants such as Broadcom and Qualcomm and controller bigwig MicroChip see the growing Internet of Things (IoT) opportunities, too. They are generally pushing broadband Wi-Fi technologies down into lower cost, lower power products, but they also have access to Bluetooth and ANT technology.
Other startups such as Ember Corp. and Dust Networks have staked much of their future on Zigbee or 6LoWPAN protocols. They have been snapped up in the last year by larger Silicon Labs and Linear Technology, respectively, trying to elbow their ways into the more industrial parts of the IoT territory.
For his part, Larsen just wants space to grow a small but comfortable business based in his native Norway. The laid-back CEO left his job as an executive at the Silicon Valley offices of Xilinx to found what is now the only fabless semiconductor company of any significant size in his country.
After the press conference, he lounges with reporters on a rented boat, cruising the local fjords, wearing a company t-shirt and orange tennis shoes, affably answering questions, eating prawns and drinking beer. Larsen is well aware his tiny Norwegian company with just 178 employees and about $140 million a year in revenues has plenty of much-larger competitors who—one way or another--also will want to claim a stake to the IoT territory.
Larsen has watched one-time Bluetooth collaborator, Nokia in neighboring Finland go from a cellphone giant to a shadow of itself in recent years. He also saw in 2005, Texas Instruments snap up Norway’s other small semi company, ChipCon, as part of its IoT bid.
“We are not keen on being a division in a major company,” said Larsen. “We are still in an early stage in this segment, and Bluetooth Low Energy is growing faster than we expected two years ago, so we would like to grow our position,” he said.
Tech journalists gather at the foot of Holmenkollen for the Nordic event.
For the moment, Nordic has a decent hand to play out.
The company was the first to make chips tailored for the ANT protocol, a still-nascent technology that has a foothold in sports and fitness markets and eyes on the medical sector and more. Nordic also was among the first adopters of Bluetooth Low Energy, winning the Norwegian firm a seat on the board of the group with the likes of Apple and Intel that manages the standard.
Nordic has shipped more than 600 million chips to date, about 70 percent of them going into wireless keyboards and mice. It hopes its next big growth spurt comes from a wave of connected TV remote controls moving up from infrared to RF to handle more complex functions such as gesture control.
But capturing the next wave of TV peripherals is no slam dunk. Nordic’s Bluetooth Low Energy chips face competition from the Zigbee Alliance which has put a full court press on this emerging market with its RF4CE initiative.
IoT is a broad, fragmented space, and Nordic has hopes of growth in all its many consumer niches. The company already has some design wins in promising areas such as sports and fitness and health care gear. And whole new IoT segments no one anticipates yet likely will open up over the next decade before the trend to radically distributed computing is played out.
For now, Nordic has become one of the first with its nRF51 family to create SoCs that combine ARM cores and 2.4 GHz RF transceivers, optimized for IoT markets. Whether Nordic can hold on for what could be a wild ride ahead will be one of the interesting stories to tell in the evolution of the next big thing in the tech industry.
The view Olympic skiers had looking down Holmenkollen.