MediaTek and its customer Amazon are aiming to create a unified smart home vision that’s so far only materialized in bits and pieces.

MediaTek chips power Amazon products such as Alexa, a voice-actuated, cloud-based personal assistant that can control several smart devices. Alexa and other Amazon products such as Echo and Fire TV, also running on MediaTek chips, are among the earliest entrants to the smart home business.

Those things hint at what home automation could be, but still fall far short of home automation’s potential. The two companies spoke about a future in which home TVs will be the hubs of systems unifying an array of electronics devices, including perhaps even errant robot sweepers.

“Amazon is putting a lot of the pieces together,” said MediaTek General Manager Finbarr Moynihan, speaking at a company event last week in San Diego. “Google is also moving in that direction.”

Moynihan

Finbarr Moynihan

A dark horse in the competition is Apple. About 15 years ago, many expected the “iTV” to be the company’s next big hit after the iPad. Yet, a system that integrates so many devices from different manufacturers while ensuring security, simplicity and seamless operation has so far been a lofty goal.

It’s still a very new business. As of January 2019, Amazon reportedly sold more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices.

“MediaTek can have exponential growth,” Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin told EE Times. “The company is going in billions and trillions of connected devices.”

MediaTek likes to highlight its position as the world’s number one (or at least number two) supplier of chips to all the leading companies making mobile phones, TVs and a growing list of IoT devices like Alexa-controlled Echoes.

Amazon and Google are the dominant brands in the smart home business as part of the internet giants’ strategy to be at the center of our online activity. Amazon’s Alexa-enabled speakers and hubs like the Echo have the lion’s share of the market, followed by Google’s Nest line of smart-home products.

Apple trails the pair with its Siri-enabled smart speaker HomePod.

MediaTek has partnered with both Amazon and Google in different ways, Apple, not so much.

Turnaround
MediaTek has exited doldrums that started when the company missed key targets for product launches in the smartphone business about three years ago, according to the new boss.

“We are in a much better place than we were,” MediaTek CEO Rick Tsai told EE Times in an interview on the sidelines of the San Diego event. “With 5G, we will have products ready when the market ramps instead of 4G, when we were playing catch up.”

MediaTek will disclose details on a new 5G chip later in November.

Tsai said he’s been spending more of his time in the U.S. to win new customers. He expects China and the U.S. eventually to account for equal parts of overall revenue, but for now, China is the biggest chunk.

“I’m not going to give up China,” says Tsai, who grew up in Taiwan and previously worked for Hewlett Packard in the U.S. and in Taiwan for TSMC where he was president and CEO from 2005 to 2009.

China’s 5G Lead
A few weeks ago, TSMC provided a more optimistic outlook for its business, given a very aggressive rollout of 5G infrastructure in various places around the world. TSMC declined to comment on specific geographies where the growth is strongest.

To MediaTek’s Rick Tsai, the leading market is clearly China.

China has officially launched nationwide 5G services, he notes.

“China is quite aggressive, and the Chinese phone makers are also quite aggressive,” Tsai said. “The competition among phone makers is one of the factors behind the rapid takeoff.”

Fire TV Cube

Amazon's Fire TV Cube

IoT Business
A third of MediaTek’s $8 billion in annual revenue comes from mobile phones, and another third is from IoT devices. In the future, IoT is likely to outpace the growth in mobile phones. MediaTek sees TVs as the future smart-home hubs.

“The TV in the future will not just be for watching content,” said MediaTek corporate VP Mike Chang, who is in charge of MediaTek’s Smart Home Business Group. “The TV is becoming a new device.”

Chang says multiple TVs in a home could perform the functions of continuously connected butlers that double as security guards across a range of edge devices, keeping data local. He notes that his company has shipped over 2 billion TV SoCs during the past 15 years that work in different television platforms around the world.

MediaTek, Intel and Qualcomm are the main suppliers of silicon for smart-home products, according to Creative Strategies’ Bajarin. MediaTek has a reputation for scoring design wins with its customers by providing ample support with reference designs.

“It’s easy to work with MediaTek from a customer standpoint,” says Bajarin.

Amazon
Arvind Mandhani, director of system architecture for Amazon Products, gave a presentation at the MediaTek event about the role TVs will play in the smart home.

He used the example of the earliest versions of Fire TV, which must be turned on with a physical button.

Fire TV is a small network appliance that can deliver digital audio/video content streamed via the internet to a high-definition television. Users can also play video games with the included remote control, with either a mobile app or an optional game controller.

For the Fire TV, voice commands make more sense, according to Mandhani.

“More seamlessness is an issue,” he said. “It’s possible that voice is not the solution for every way you interact with the TV.”

He added that with the help of AI voice, people will be able to interact with TVs easily from various rooms of a house. A person will also be able to monitor various cameras around a house from one TV, he said.