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When it comes to the IoT, what are the opportunities for the semiconductor industry?

One of the problems with the Internet of Things (IoT) is its definition; it means different things to different people. And NXP's CEO Rick Clemmer hit the nail on the head during this year's CEO Roundtable at electronica. "Nobody knows what the IoT is," he asserted. His interpretation? "We should be thinking about the IoT making life easier; it should be about a smarter world."

No matter how you define it, the IoT is here. "It's here and it's happening," said Freescale's CEO Gregg Lowe. "There are three factors: security; scalability; and efficiency – particularly energy. The possibilities are significant."

STMicroelectronics' Carlo Bozotti said: "The opportunities are huge, including smart cities, smart homes and smart cars." He noted that, in the future, 60% of the population will live in cities. "And 10% of the population will be older than 65, so cities must become smarter in order to manage complexity."

Infineon's Reinhard Ploss sees the IoT as another industrial revolution. "But it's different to previous ones. The use cases which will be drivers include autonomous cars, Industry 4.0 and assisted living. But there is not one device which will do all this; it needs lots of things to come together." He added that whilst such devices needed to be open and connected to the internet, they also needed to be secure. "We will need to know who we're talking to. We need to be sure the hardware they use has a level of integrity. Europe isn't in a bad position here," he continued. "A lot of the things draw on Europe's core competences, including automotive and industrial."

Bozotti believes the IoT offers Europe particular opportunities. "The IoT provides a new wave of opportunity for start ups. Europe was the leader in smartphone development, but has lost this position. But many of the competences are still here and there is the opportunity to build start ups around the IoT." His implication was that semiconductor companies should be there to support them.

Lowe believes that if the industry can develop products based on security, scalability and energy efficiency, such start ups will come out with applications that can take advantage.

One area where he sees great opportunity is autonomous driving. "But the killer app isn't autonomous vehicles," he contended. "It's a car that can't get into an accident; one that is aware of its surroundings. If such a car can be built, there will be a huge payback."

Ploss pointed to a potential weakness. "The web won't always be available for the autonomous car, but such a car should be able to drive safely in any circumstances. So the IoT also represents a move into high reliability; systems which add value – and that's an opportunity for the semiconductor industry because its ability to adopt fast moving trends."

All CEOs recognised the importance of IoT security. Clemmer, for example, sees cybersecurity risk as 'critical'. "But there are fundamental semiconductor technologies that can deal with that. If you do it in software, it's hackable; you reduce that risk when you use hardware."

Ploss added: "You can do secure communications when chips inside a phone or a router identify you using a token. But we have to join forces with users and the telecoms industry to implement that." However, he took a different view to Clemmer. "The semiconductor industry has to move into software, because hardware alone can't support connnectivity. Users can then decide whether to give away their data in exchange for a service or to protect their data. There are some apps where you don't care whether your data is used or not, but others where the internet has to bring transparency. Let's deal with it," he concluded.

Graham Pitcher

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