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Friday, March 27, 2009

New Killer Apps for 2010 and Beyond

What are the hot new future applications that will help drive semiconductor manufacturing volumes in the upturn? What are the killer apps that will drive the market like the Internet, mobile phones and ipods? Here’s my take on a few (its a wireless world):

Ultra wideband
- UWB is a radio technology that can be used at very low energy levels for short-range high-bandwidth communications such as Personal Area Networks (PANS), sensor networks, and cable replacements for audio video, printing and other applications. At least a dozen mainly venture-backed companies have been pursuing UWB for uses such as wireless USB links on consumer and computer gear. To date, relatively high prices as well as performance and regulatory hurdles have limited the market for the wireless links. We want this market to take off; we know it someday will. But when? With the recent demise of a couple of the early leaders, the jury is still out on UWB.

Zigbee- ZigBee is a low-cost, low-power, wireless mesh networking standard for wireless control and monitoring applications. The low power-usage allows longer life with smaller batteries, and the mesh networking provides high reliability and larger range. The initial markets for the ZigBee Alliance include consumer electronics, energy management, home automation, building automation and industrial automation. The technology is intended to be simpler and less expensive than Bluetooth. ZigBee chip vendors such as TI, Freescale and Ember typically sell integrated radios and microcontrollers with between 60K and 128K flash memory. The standard, and the chips that support it, will probably play a critical role in the Smart Grid deployment, as well as related home automation products. Zigbee has a broad range of applications and looks like it has some momentum. Looks like a winner to me.

NFC- Another interesting short-wave wireless technology is Near Field Communications (NFC). NFC seems to have evolved from RFID and will be an enabling technology for mobile payment systems. Operating at 13.56 MHz and transferring data at up to 424 Kbits/second, communication between two NFC-compatible devices occurs when they are brought within four centimeters of one another. Because the transmission range is so short, NFC-enabled transactions are inherently secure and intuitively safe.

NFC can be used with a variety of devices, from mobile phones that enable payment or transfer information to digital cameras that send their photos to a TV set with just a touch. The possibilities are endless, and NFC is sure to take the complexities out of today’s increasingly sophisticated consumer devices and make them simpler to use. Mobile payment systems make sense, but until I see they them widely used in places like Singapore, Hong Kong or Helsinki, I wouldn’t bet on them in the short term.

Cloud Computing--The concept of Cloud Computing received a fair amount of talk at SEMICON Japan by folks like Terry Higashi and Takeo Hoshino of METI. The concept revolves around Internet-based services, large server farms and ‘software as a service.” While it might the drive the need for better chips to enable lower power computing, I don’t see it driving volumes. The trends toward connecting everything to the net—including refrigerators, ATMs, industrial machinery, security cameras, etc.—is already in full swing. I don’t see it providing a step function increase in chip volumes, but it will fuel a more accommodating world for Netbooks and Internet appliances.

WIMAX- According to Infonetics Research, combined worldwide equipment revenues were up only 3% from Q1'2008 to $402 million, and we assume they went into the crapper in Q4. Before the financial collapse, Infonetics predicted that by 2011, 110 million users of WiMAX technologies are forecasted. The WiMAX Forum now claims there are over 400 WiMAX networks deployed in over 130 countries. Developing countries have been the engine for WiMAX market growth, with Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Central and Latin America, and parts of the Asia Pacific being hot-beds of activity. Intel is the current leader in chipsets, but there are nearly 20 companies are now producing baseband chip-sets for mobile WiMAX and there are probably 15 suppliers of WiMAX radio transceiver chips (Forward Concepts). That bodes well for easy adoption by handset makers and network managers. Bandwidth-makes-sense. Count on WiMAX for a nice contribution in chip volumes over the next 5 years.

Other more familiar applications that will drive semiconductor volumes in the future will be solid state drives, Wi-Fi (see a lot of upside), mobiles phones (both high end and low end), and handheld electronics like ipods (more video) and ebooks. The real driver though will be general economic health, especially in developing regions.

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