Executive Interview: Cees Links, GM of Qorvo's low power wireless business
The IoT will emerge from the trough of disillusionment to transform society
Please tell us about your background and the genesis of GreenPeak Technologies, which is now the low power wireless business of Qorvo.
In 2004, it became clear that Wi-Fi was moving toward higher data rates, also that it would become increasingly difficult for simple, battery operated devices in the home to connect to the internet. So, meeting with a few old friends/former colleagues from the Wi-Fi days, we discussed how to implement low power Wi-Fi and what the chip architecture would need to be. We quickly discovered not only that ZigBee — actually IEEE 802.15.4 — would be superior to low power Wi-Fi, also that the same architectural ideas could be applied to develop the lowest power ZigBee in the industry.
And the rest is history. Well, almost. We started on a long journey.
Looking forward in the moment, we were determined, creative, resourceful and planning to make our new company an absolute success. Looking back, it was a much more difficult process than we anticipated. We met with 50 venture capital firms in Palo Alto, London, Paris and Munich and barely scraped the Series A money together for a first tape-out. At that point, we wondered whether we should get normal jobs instead of going on such an adventure. When the financial markets crashed in 2008, we were shopping around for Series B with 25 people on payroll; it was amazing that we did not go under.
Your company (i.e., GreenPeak) and team were acquired by Qorvo last spring, and you are now part of Qorvo’s infrastructure and defense products (IDP) business. Your market focus, products and underlying technologies are significantly different than IDP’s. What motivated you to join forces with Qorvo?
Well, exactly that: our market focus and underlying technologies are significantly different.
One of the ways to improve gross margins (read: escape the race to the bottom) is to climb up in the value chain. Our focus is on system-level solutions. We essentially build templates for solving consumer and business problems with technology. We focus on low power internet connectivity for sensors, providing data for analytics and transforming information into results that help us to make better decisions, faster.
Joining Qorvo allows us to build a complete ecosystem with our partners and provide complete solutions in the market.
For years we heard about M2M (machine to machine). Now that seems to have been supplanted by the phrase “Internet of Things” (IoT), with attendant applications such as “smart homes” and “smart cities.” Explain what these terms mean, perhaps by illustrating the functionality they bring that will improve our lives.
The IoT is not new; it’s only the term in fashion today. For a long time, there have been vending machines in hotels that know their inventory levels and report that back, so vendors can replenish stock in a timely manner and avoid expending resources on fully loaded machines.
So, what is a smart home? A smart home is a home with sensors connected to the cloud, capable of making decisions in particular situations: locking doors when there’s no one in the home, turning off the light/heating when there’s no one in a room, shutting off the water supply if there’s a leakage, sending an alarm if someone is breaking into the house. Simple security systems and thermostats are already examples of smart home applications, but what is new today on these systems is the combination of sense and control with data collection and analytics.
For example, an assisted living system with a few motion sensors can track the average time it takes to walk from the bedroom to the bathroom. For elderly people, breaking a hip can be a terminal event. The system recognizes slow increases in walking time and warns for balance problems, preventing a person from falling and breaking a hip.
Smart cities follow a similar logic. Typical examples of smart cities functions are knowing where the empty spots are in parking lots and parking garages.
We see a proliferation of wireless and networking technologies vying to capture the IoT market opportunity: LoRa, SIGFOX, LTE-M, 5G (in the future), Wi-Fi, ZigBee. Help us understand this landscape. Will we see all of these technologies playing long-term roles, or do you expect winners and losers (e.g., like VHS vs. Beta)?
Yes, the landscape is quite convoluted, though this is not uncommon when new technology concepts are breaking ground.
To quickly explain, let’s start with the foundation: 1) LTE, 2) Wi-Fi and 3) Bluetooth are the base pillars for wireless connectivity today, which allow us to share internet content (email, voice, music, video, etc.). These technologies are on a trajectory best characterized as the faster, the better, with energy consumption (battery life) a secondary consideration. These technologies can also be recognized as:
- LTE for “wide area networks” (say, outdoors)
- Wi-Fi for “local area networks” (say, indoors)
- Bluetooth for “personal area networks” (say, mobile/wearables).
All three technologies have limited battery life, as we know from recharging laptops, tablets, phones or wireless earplugs.
The IoT, on the other hand, is not about content distribution, but about sense and control, with low data rates and long battery life. Therefore, the aforementioned three wireless technologies and their corresponding standardization bodies have low power technology equivalents: 1) LTE Cat-M, 2) ZigBee and 3) Bluetooth Low Energy. These are also the standards that we think have the potential to be winners, because they are open standards and can be used worldwide across uniform frequency bands.
Unfortunately, we are still in the early days, which means early proprietary standards or competing open standards. Under 1) we see LoRa, SigFox, Ingenu, Weightless and others; under 2) Thread, ZWave, EnOcean; under 3) ANT+. On top of that, large companies are putting their own umbrella standards in this space. For the smart home, there are Brillo, HomeKit and the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF). And this is only the consumer space. The industrial space has their own set of standards.
Where would you place the IoT on the fabled Gartner “hype cycle” curve? More broadly, what challenges need to be addressed to enable mass adoption of these consumer and industrial applications?
The last few years, there has been a lot of hype — and disappointment. I would say, we are in the trough of disillusionment. There is a lot of confusion about standards, and products are too expensive and just missing the mark on convenience/ease-of-use. There’s still too much technology push, instead of great products with market pull.
These are all challenges the industry is working on feverishly, and I am optimistic, very optimistic. I had been with Wi-Fi in the trough of disillusionment for years until we got it right; today, we cannot even imagine a world without Wi-Fi anymore. So, there is also a learning element. As a society, we need to learn how to deal with the availability of data everywhere, and we need to learn to extract and appreciate the value.
With virtually everything being connected to everything, do you have concerns about protecting the security of our data, our homes, our possessions?
Yes. We, as people, have love-hate relationships with new technology. The most stunning example I think is the car. The number of lives claimed by car accidents is stunning, yet we cannot live without driving. So, while the IoT will enable us to live better, more efficient and safer lives, this cannot be done without providing data. The number one concern is that data is well protected from abuse and privacy infringements, and this concern is being addressed.
Frankly, the industry is still learning how to use big data technology in a safe way. Many accidents happen, for instance, where private data is hacked. It’s like the early stages of flying, when airplane crashes happened relatively often. The good news is legislation is catching up and demanding that companies take measures to protect data. The whole industry is on a big learning curve.
What is Qorvo’s strategy for addressing this growth opportunity? What markets or applications are you targeting, and what products or solutions are you offering?
The standard strategy in the trough of disillusionment is the bowling pin strategy: find those applications (pins) that are (relatively) large, hit them and then watch those pins knock over the others.
So, we started with a very simple but high volume application: the IR remote control for TVs and set-top boxes. It was the last technology out of the previous century. We started to target this application and replace the IR remote with an RF remote because of its convenience (no line-of-sight required) and robustness (less service calls, long battery life). Now, we have built voice remote controls on top of this, which would have never been possible with IR. More value is created, and now people can ask for the movie they are looking for.
We think we’ve found the next bowling pin in assisted living: helping people to live home alone longer and not be concerned that if something happens, it would go unnoticed. This is a particular concern for elderly people.
The wireless ICs are a small piece of a much larger ecosystem, an ecosystem that, for consumers, likely ends with an app on a smartphone or tablet. How are you connected to this ecosystem, particularly the standards being defined?
All IoT systems have more or less the same template, whether a small system like a Fitbit or a large one controlling an oil refinery. We tend to split the whole system up into four parts: the sensor, the data analytics, the user interface and the management system.
Let me explain this via the Fitbit. The wristband is the sensor, the data analytics is the “lifestyle coaching” program in the cloud, the user interface is the app on the smart phone and then there is a management system playing in the background, managing the integrity of the whole system (user name/password, security, privacy protection).
In our pioneering IoT work, we bring different players in the ecosystem together, allowing us to sell a smart home system, for instance, to an operator. The first question we get from an operator is usually “Where can I get the sensors?” So, we have developed relationships with Chinese manufacturers who produce sensors. The next question is usually “Where can I get the data analytics?” We are currently working with several analytics partners. We are working with app developers, too, and operators usually have their own billing and support systems that we need to integrate with.Selling chips, selling systems and creating pull-though. That’s the formula, and of course your eco-system partners are doing the same, creating pull-through for you. Everyone needs to pull their weight.
In September, Qorvo announced that your smart home gateway platform received the ZigBee 3.0 certification — the first in the industry to be certified. Why is this significant?
With this announcement, we accomplish a few things: First, we promote the ZigBee ecosystem and our key role in its development. We expect that ZigBee may become a household name in the future, like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Second, we position ourselves as a key player in the sensor market. Initially, many applications will be vertically end-to-end (e.g., a lamp with a switch and a gateway; a door lock with a key and a gateway). And third and finally, we are paving the way for other emerging technologies, like Thread, Weave and ZigBee over Thread.
ZigBee 3.0 is the first generation in ZigBee that pulls together all the different flavors of the technology — one of the weaker points of ZigBee in the past. ZigBee 3.0 now serves all the various applications that in the past were served by different application profiles.
With so many semiconductor companies chasing the IoT, how is Qorvo differentiated?
Qorvo has always been a leader in differentiating with the lowest energy consumption and the best (maximum) reliable range. In data communication systems, range is always critically important. Reliability, in particular in the presence of sources of interference — like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth that share the band with ZigBee — is critically important, as well. We have developed uniquely differentiated technologies for this, including patented antenna diversity for IEEE 802.15.4, multi-stack, multi-band (allowing networks to instantaneously switch channels) and also multi-radio concepts.
We have a continuous focus on raising the bar and letting the competition follow us, and we are planning to continue this moving forward.
Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen society transformed by personal computers, the internet, and mobile phones. Do you see the IoT equally transformative?
The short answer is yes, but let me elaborate why. The IoT, contrary to the “things” in its name, is really about systems that enable better decision making faster. Making better decisions faster is going to be the new source for wealth creation this coming decade, as pervasive as the internet itself. Making better decisions faster will save cost, improve quality, improve efficiency and lift our society to the next level of sophistication.
For example, compare the sophistication of the car today — with central door locking, tire pressure sensors, adaptive cruise control and even auto pilot — to a car 20 years ago. The car today is safer, more comfortable, more fuel efficient, more reliable, requires less maintenance and, overall, contributes to fewer traffic accidents and casualties. This is an early, limited prototype of how the IoT will contribute value in the coming 20 years in all elements of society, by helping us make better decisions faster.
At Qorvo, we are proudly contributing to this vision: a connected world is a better world!