By Tyson Tuttle, CEO, Silicon Labs 

The IoT is a hot topic these days. IHS Technology predicts 95.5 billion devices will be on the internet in 2025. That’s a staggering number. But it seems possible as the trend has hit an inflection point and many companies are getting behind it with applications and enabling technology.

The closest comparison we have to the IoT is the handset revolution from the early part of this century. Today, there are arguably only a few large handset makers and a handful of semiconductor companies supplying them. That makes for a pretty cutthroat style industry. Innovation has become dependant on only a few device providers, and it is fundamentally tied to what those devices are optimized to do. David Rose of the MIT Media Lab calls these devices “cold black slabs we interact with 90% of our waking hours, resulting in a colder, more isolated, less humane world.” [Enchanted Objects, pg. 2]

Conversely, the IoT revolution crosses hundreds of suppliers, thousands of customers, and tens of thousands of applications, many of which are still waiting to be discovered. David Rose defines IoT-enabled objects as ordinary things enchanted “with sensors, wireless connection, and embedded processing to make them more useful, more delightful, more informative, and more engaging.” [Enchanted Objects, pg. 47]

Given the enormous changes the IoT brings in how we interact with the world, I get excited. Why? Because we as the semiconductor industry have the opportunity to super charge this revolution with smaller, better, lower power silicon and more complete, easy to use software and design tools. It’s an opportunity to apply our decades of expertise in the “black slab” business to a whole new universe of applications.

We know how to do “black slab”—but we can’t yet even define the real limits to the IoT! There are new areas of development and discovery that have never used a sensor or a connection to the network before.

And while that is truly exciting, it’s also a big responsibility. The engineers designing this new class of devices may have never been exposed to the nuance of a sensor node, the rigors of wireless networking, or a “server-side” application. Of course they can learn how to accomplish these new tasks, but we can help them excel with our own expertise, solutions and support.

For example, today’s IoT solutions may use discrete modules for the required functionality. A device engineer may add wireless with a pre-certified module including the software stack. It’s easy to put down on their board, already certified to work with other similar wireless nodes, and provided in a self-contained shielded assembly. It’s easy, right? The downside is that modules typically cost more than similar standalone chips and may take more board space. The same can be said for modules with sensor nodes, MCUs, and other functions.

An integrated chip (IC) with wireless and sensing as well as a low-power processor core and memory will revolutionize this design complexity. And the best part is that an all-in-one IC will consume less power, be smaller, cost less, and may even work better!

Software is another new challenge. Existing “ordinary objects” generally use a small amount of embedded code that hasn’t been touched in years. As these objects connect to the IoT, they become “enchanted” as David Rose calls them. The benefits are huge, but the software requirement grows exponentially.

It’s no longer a standalone device performing a spot function. It’s now an autonomous device, connected to a network of similar devices, collaborating with them, and managed from a cloud application. There may even be customer-facing software running on the black slabs for configuration and reporting!

The wonderful side of this challenge is that it doesn’t have to be that hard. Just as integrated silicon simplifies design, software is simplified with example code, tools, wireless protocol stacks, code sharing, collaboration and robust development environments. The semiconductor industry is uniquely equipped to provide these tools to speed IoT development. We as a group understand the challenges from the circuits through certification.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I am excited. The new frontiers of IoT engineering and innovation are exciting. I believe we are looking at new green fields of discovery unlike we have seen since the advent of the internet explosion. Innovations in silicon and tools are happening all around us that will simplify the challenges of designing for the IoT.

Our industry is working hard to amplify IoT engineering around the world. Today, applications engineers are adding sensors, connectivity, low-power processing, and software to billions of ordinary objects to create IoT applications we have not even dreamed of. And we are right there with them.

It’s an exciting time!