Ex-Broadcom unit to set up Cypress as IoT powerhouse

Article By : Junko Yoshida

Despite a “little overlap” between the companies’ IoT products, those destined for a hard look will be Cypress’ Bluetooth products.

Cypress Semiconductor has finally closed the previously announced acquisition for Rs. 3,716.22 crore ($550 million) of Broadcom’s Internet of Things business unit, in a move designed to establish Cypress as a wireless IoT processor powerhouse.

Details of the newly combined teams’ IoT technology/product plans won’t be available until the partners sort through which product lines to keep (or discontinue) among current IoT-related projects.

Despite a “little overlap” between the companies’ IoT products, those destined for a hard look will be Cypress’ Bluetooth products. Under the deal, Broadcom’s team has brought its own Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Zigbee wireless technology.

No decision has been made about Cypress’ PSoC programmable system-on-chips. It remains to be seen if that will become the foundation for the company’s new line of wireless IoT processors.

Stephen DiFranco, who came to Cypress from Broadcom and now runs the IoT business unit, stressed that the first order of business is to assure that “there will be no service interruptions” for both companies’ customers.

Outnumbers Cypress’ original IoT team

The new unit’s directions and strategies will likely tilt toward the Broadcom team, which dwarfs its counterpart at Cypress.

Cypress’ new IoT team consists of 450 people who came from Broadcom’s Wireless IoT business and 50 people who worked on IoT at Cypress—out of 7,000 Cypress employees.

Under the deal, in addition to its own wireless technology, Broadcom will bring to Cypress its Software Development Kit (SDK), WICED. DiFranco calls WICED, a developer ecosystem and community, the “crown jewel” of the deal. He believes it will become the key for Cypress’ IoT business to grow.

Although he is proud of what his team accomplished at Broadcom, DiFranco acknowledged, “We [Broadcom team] had to find a new home.”

He explained that Broadcom was good at serving large customers, a profile not exactly compatible with the IoT community. Typically, the still fledgling IoT market attracts a host of smaller customers willing to try different connectivity projects and products. Broadcom proved to be a little too broad to reach those potential customers.

In contrast, Cypress has “exceptional collaterals accessible to everyone,” said DiFranco, making it easy for many to try their products. “We need to adopt that philosophy,” he said, to go for the mass market.

Product overlap

Two wireless technologies—Wi-Fi and Zigbee—are tools Cypress previously didn’t have.

Since Broadcom cut its teeth in the smartphone market, fighting for sockets with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips, the firm’s wireless chips’ inherent strength is in standalone offerings.

Although Broadcom made “some success” on the IoT market with combo products—Bluetooth or Wi-Fi integrated in its own MCU, said DiFranco, “the majority of our wireless IoT chip business is in pairing our standalone chips with MCUs by someone else—such as STMicroelectronics or NXP Semiconductors.”

DiFranco’s commitment is to “continue to work with our current MCU partners,” he explained.

Asked when Cypress will have a new line of wireless IoT processors combining Broadcom’s wireless technologies with Cypress’ MCUs, DiFranco said, “We have no time line for that yet.” Noting Cypress’ “large, expansive MCU business,” he implied that the company needs more time to sort things out.

As for Cypress’ current line of Bluetooth chips and PSoC programmable system-on-chip products, “We need to take a look at them, and we will be listening to our customers’ feedback,” said DiFranco.

The ex-Broadcom team has its Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi chips fabricated on a 40nm process technology. Versions based on a 28nm process are currently “in development,” according to DiFranco.

What about IPs?

When it brought its Bluetooth and Wi-Fi chips to Cypress, did Broadcom bring its own IPs with them?

According to DiFranco, Broadcom still owns patents related to those wireless chips. “Cypress is licensed to produce Bluetooth and Wi-Fi products for the IoT industry.”

Broadcom retains the right to use those wireless technologies in set-tops, access points and tablet PCs, he explained.

Wait. How is an access point different from a gateway? As DiFranco defines it, a gateway is a product with IoT-specific applications running atop a microcontroller. Cypress is licensed to use Broadcom’s wireless patents for making chips for such gateways.
A wireless access point (WAP) is a networking hardware device that allows a Wi-Fi compliant device to connect to a wired network. The wireless access point can be a standalone device or a part of the router. Broadcom pursues that segment of the market.

Race for radio abstraction

DiFranco has good reason to believe that WICED can be the linchpin for the future of IoT.

WICED middleware for Internet connected devices started as a skunkworks effort at Broadcom, he explained. In those days, Broadcom’s Bluetooth/Wi-Fi team was busy serving mobile phone companies. When NEST, with its connected thermostat, suddenly burst into the consumer market, the idea of connected devices hit the market big.

The trouble was that most designers of connected devices, including access points, typically “had no idea” how to control radio and bring wireless radio stacks into their systems and run applications, explained DiFranco.

Inevitably, his team at Broadcom got heavily involved in customisation as they helped customers design their products. Scott McGregor, then CEO at Broadcom, saw what the team was doing and suggested developing a formal SDK, according to DiFranco. WICED stands for Wireless Internet Connectivity for Embedded Devices. McGregor had the foresight to see the importance of the project, but resources he provided to the team were limited. “It was still a science project then,” as DiFranco recalls.

To expand the original version of WICED SDK to full-fledged middleware—called WICED Studio—100 engineers eventually got involved, he said.

Today, by offering radio abstraction, WICED allows developers of connected devices to quickly customise solutions, he explained.

While DiFranco boasts the significance of WICED for IoT developers, other IoT processor companies are also racing to the market with a similar strategy, developing their own software stacks and IoT development tools.

Silicon Labs catching up?

Silicon Labs last month launched a wireless networking software called the Connect stack, designed for proprietary applications.

Silicon Labs has been offering radio abstraction interface layer (RAIL) software that eases the complexity of proprietary development.

Now, with Connect—optimised for low-power devices, IoT designers can have a full-featured, IEEE 802.15.4-based stack that supports sub-GHz and 2.4GHz frequency bands.

Daniel Cooley, senior vice president and general manager of IoT products at Silicon Labs, recently told EE Times, “That’s where the future of software is.” The idea is to provide software that abstracts low-level details of network formation and radio configuration, so that developers can focus on applications, he explained.

Both Cypress and Silicon Labs see such radio abstraction tools as the key to the proliferation of IoT products.

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