Enabling IoT through Wi-Fi and Bluetooth: Q&A with Broadcom marketing director Jeff Baer

Michael McManus, DIGITIMES, Taipei 0

Just before Computex 2013, Digitimes spoke with Jeff Baer, marketing director for Embedded Wireless, Wireless Connectivity Combo at Broadcom to find out more about Broadcom's push into the embedded space with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Q: Lately there has been buzz about Broadcom levering its wireless technology in the embedded space, can you tell us about the progress Broadcom has made in this area?

A: To start off, the Broadcom embedded business is kind of on the opposite end of the portfolio spectrum from our consumer business when it comes to technology and business model. In the consumer world, the focus of the business is on huge OEMs and huge ODMs, which work with a few well-defined applications. The embedded space that we are targeting, whether it is called Internet of Things (IoT) or machine to machine (M2M) communication, is more of a horizontal type of business, where all types of electronic devices will eventually be connected wirelessly.

Q: How is Broadcom enabling customers?

A: I represent a product family called WICED (Wireless Internet Connectivity for Embedded Devices). WICED (pronounced wicked) is a development system that vastly reduces the effort required to add wireless connectivity (mainly Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) to embedded devices. We launched the first WICED product about a year ago focusing on Wi-Fi and since then we have made more announcements, adding more legs on the WICED stool, so to speak. For example, we recently announced the availability of our Smart Development Kit with Bluetooth Smart system-on-a-chip (SoC), allowing for more development for battery-operated devices.

We've continued building up the portfolio by adding the Broadcom 4390, which we've been talking about here at Computex. The 4390 is an SoC designed for 8 and 16 bit microcontroller systems. The 4390 basically delivers Wi-Fi connectivity to low-power and battery-powered devices. Initial applications that the BCM4390 will support include sports and fitness, health and wellness and security and automation. However, innovations based on the WICED platform can also help OEMs connect even the simplest appliances, including slow cookers, lights and more, with a single-chip. We've currently sampling the 4390 and we expect products based on the chip to hit the market by the end of the year.

This is a crucial building block in the goal for end-to-end connectivity. Our vision is for everything to be wirelessly connected. We've seen this trend developing over some time and there is widespread belief that this going to happen. With the WICED architecture we are really enabling this with a couple of core pieces of technology that are derived from our industry leading Bluetooth and Wi-Fi products.

Now, developers have a platform and the tools to implement Internet connectivity in a variety of devices, especially those without existing support for networking, like digital cameras, proximity tags and smart meters, etc.

Q: What is driving this market?

A: Historically, the wireless embedded market was more complex than it needed to be. It required some professional gateway or some expensive box to enable communication with a device. However, if you use Wi-Fi, you don't need some special hookup to connect. But ultimately the catalyst for this market and what is moving it forward is the growth of the smartphones and the tablet industry. All of these devices feature Wi-Fi. So now you have a device that is Wi-Fi enabled and that people are comfortable using. And pretty much everyone on the planet is carrying one of these devices around with them.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: The console will be the smartphone. IoT allows the Internet to be gathered at all different sets of nodes and then kind of consolidated and moved to a common place either for analysis or action. For example, maybe you will have some sort of sensor in your shoe that tells you when have walked 10,000 steps or maybe you have some kind of heart monitor. The data gathered by these sensors can be transferred wirelessly to your smartphone and consolidated there. It can then be monitored or, more importantly, uploaded to the cloud - to some website where you can analyze it, and based on that analysis, take some action based on the events or simply keep track of the data on a day to day basis.

Some of the usage models for these devices are kind of simple. A great example is some kind of medical equipment or pill dispenser. You can have that device enabled with wireless and basically you can monitor a person who is on medication but is living alone and report back on a daily basis with the data -when the medication has been taken or even if the patient is still alive with his or her vital signs being maintained in a predefined range. This saves the cost of having a nurse or medical practitioner from having to go out into the field and make a house call to check up on the patient, which is both expensive and not very scalable.

Q: It is interesting that Broadcom is using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for wireless communication in embedded devices. A lot of companies are using ZigBee?

A: There are a multitude of different wireless protocols that are in a sense similar, but different. They all have strengths and weaknesses. ZigBee was one of the first wireless protocols in the embedded space. It went out there and got established a number of years ago and really targeted machine to machine or sensor type of applications at a time when there wasn't really any other technology that was being tailored for those types of applications. However, although it was out there first it really doesn't mean that it was the best technology over the long haul. In a couple of areas ZigBee has not stood the test of time. One major area is interoperability. The solutions that are out there are not particularly interoperable from solution to solution or from vendor to vendor.

This is an area where both the Bluetooth SIG and the Wi-Fi alliance have done a really outstanding job of setting interoperability standards and enforcing those through really strict compatibility logo testing. So, if you have a Bluetooth device, you know it is going to be interoperable with all other Bluetooth devices. If you have a Wi-Fi device logo, you know the device is going to work with all your other Wi-Fi devices.

The other issue with ZigBee is from a practical point of view. You can connect things but once they are connected, who do they talk to? The challenge is how do you get the data from the devices into a format that can be analyzed. For ZigBee you need some kind of specialized gateway or box and that box has to fit somewhere in your house or warehouse or factory. The fact is, this makes the entire system more complicated than it needs to be - people don't like to procure and support extra boxes.

On the other hand, if these embedded devices are enabled with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, they can communicate directly with a smartphone. This goes back to what I was saying before, that the catalyst that has led to the explosion in this area is the smartphones and tablets that already have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. So if you have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enabled devices, you can be confident that you can access them through your tablet or smartphone, or even your TV or PC. In this kind of usage model, you are much more likely to access and use that data, meaning it will add value to your life.

Broadcom marketing director Jeff Baer

Broadcom marketing director Jeff Baer
Photo: Company