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January/February: Vision

How Connectivity Is Transforming CE Products

By Tony King-Smith

Within four years, more than 70 percent of all mainstream consumer electronics (CE) products, including TVs, radios, toys, cameras and printers will be connected to the Internet. Indeed, several major CE manufacturers already have committed to integrate Internet connectivity across their entire product lines.

These new technologies will drive the next wave of ubiquitous connectivity in all types of consumer products, ushering in a new era of diverse, mass market cloud connectivity. This will enable the creation of products never before possible such as photo frames with built in social media widgets, cameras that send their "digital film" off to be "developed" or radios that allow you to tag and purchase music -- with no PC in sight.

Beneath the skin of these devices there will be one significant transformation: connectivity will move from its current position, as an add-on chip, to live on the main SoC (system on chip). It's a consequence of the unstoppable progress of electronics -- every mass market technology ends up on a single chip. This reduces cost, reduces risk and reduces power demand. And connectivity is right on the cusp of that level of mass market acceptance.

The world is getting so connected that soon creating any chip incorporating a processor without connectivity will seem as alien as designing a chip today without memory or peripherals. Connected devices now are truly past the "what if" phase. In the future everything from the smallest cheapest electronics device upwards will have an IP address and be connected to the world via the Internet. The most innovative new products released over the next few years will be connected using new low-power, connected processor-based SoC's based on embedded high-performance processors tightly coupled with multi-standard communications engines.

From a hardware perspective this will result in a new class of advanced single chip connected processor devices that will power the "Internet Everywhere" generation of CE products. They will fulfill not only traditional CE roles such as media processing and system control but also high-speed communications using a combination of Wi-Fi and broadcast channels. The product will no longer 'stop' at the edges of the box it sits in -- it will reach out to every form of data and content service it can find.

On the software side, cloud-based portals will connect these devices to the cloud, delivering content of every form imaginable to the device, creating myriad new opportunities for cloud-based product apps and CE services. Connectivity means nothing without content, however, and how portals will support mass CE connectivity and what will differentiate brands across them are the key questions taxing the minds of CE executives today.

New CE Products

Connectivity will deliver a perpetual back-channel creating profound new commercial opportunities -- many on content rich devices like TVs and set-top-boxes (STB) where people are already used to a mix of free-to-air and pay-per-view options. The commercialization of other devices will come in the guise of added functionality. Need a larger print than your printer is capable of? Buy it direct from your printer and have it delivered overnight. Want to get hard copies of the images from your digital photo frame? It can be a click away direct from the photo frame itself -- no PC required. Like a song on the radio? Press a button on your radio to identify and buy the track and add it to your cloud-based music collection. And don't just keep all that content in one place -- stream it to multiple devices: view your photos on your radio or your calendar on your photo frame.

And of course the integration of social media and CE devices has begun moving from the most popular platforms like smartphones, onto ones where connectivity is making a profound change to the very character of familiar products, like radios and TVs. CE products are beginning to take advantage of this connected approach and include access to social sites like Facebook, Picasa and Twitter.

Already the big players are using this connectivity to enhance TVs, radios, in-car services and music and video delivery. Indeed convergence and connectivity are going to continue to transform categories like TV for years to come. After decades of defining a TV as a device that is a receiver with limited, broadcast content, now TVs can become retail points, deliver a plethora of content on demand, play games, connect us to social media, store our photographs, send content to other devices, help us schedule our viewing with editorial-rich electronic program guides (EPGs) and deliver Internet radio, podcasts and email.

But most importantly, the cost of connected processors -- being low-cost, high-volume SoCs -- will be such that it is not just premium CE products that will benefit.

The Cloud Will Connect All of Us

How all these devices connect together and how they will be controlled and managed will be one of the major challenges facing CE manufacturers in the years to come. However, what is certain is that an increasing dialogue between devices will become the norm, with the cloud connecting all, storage being shared (and often not even in the home) and maybe even load balancing of processing and storage across all of your connected devices.

We will benefit from reliable remote back-up, a bewildering array of new services and streamlined ease-of-use. Even relatively dumb devices will seem smart with their "brains" in the cloud where processing resources can be aggregated and their capabilities made available everywhere (like the vast server farms powering search engines today).

When even the cheapest, least engineered mass market products can be connected easily it will mean that a whole new market opens up to supply portals that connect these devices using common platforms to the cloud.

For example, "proximity storage" will mean that you no longer need to plug in your USB memory stick -- just make sure you've got a Wi-Fi connection and let the devices talk to each other and decide where data should be. Set-top boxes will need less storage with more content being streamed from the cloud. Auto population will mean that when you download the pictures from your connected camera, they are immediately accessible to your photo frame, TV, printer or tablet. The combination of highly intelligent and responsive CE devices of all shapes and types, when combined with ubiquitous connectivity and cloud-based applications, means that technology will be far easier to use by all than ever before.

Imagination Technologies is an example of a new breed of company seizing the opportunity to bring these new technologies to life in a wide array of CE products, by delivering a combination of chip designs and cloud-based services all from a single IP supplier. By licensing their Flow technology, Imagination's partners will be able to get from a single source everything needed to create complete, fully connected cloud-based products. This includes highly integrated hardware and software designs for creating advanced consumer, industrial and embedded products, complemented by a range of Internet-based connectivity technologies, a rapidly expanding portfolio of cloud-based resources and services and even an extensive range of content -- all from the same technology provider.

CE products continue to get more complex, yet must achieve low costs and fast time-to-market if they are to succeed. In many markets that are not yet addressed by the biggest brands, there are a vast range of opportunities for innovative and aggressive electronics manufacturers to deliver Internet-connected cloud-based products and services. However, to bring together engineering teams capable of designing chips, writing software, implementing Web portals and services and negotiating content deals is too challenging for all but the bigggest industry players -- until now. The rules of the game have changed.

Tony King-Smith is vice president of marketing for Imagination Technologies.

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