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Will CSR help Qualcomm capture the Internet of Everything?

CSR, the Cambridge based Bluetooth pioneer, is to be acquired by Qualcomm in a deal which values it at around $1.6billion. Subject to the usual approvals, the deal is expected to close in the middle of 2015.

Qualcomm's CEO Steve Mollenkopf said the move would complement and strengthen the company's expertise in the areas of automotive infotainment, portable audio, wearable devices and the Internet of Everything.

"Combining CSR's highly advanced offering of connectivity technologies with a strong track record of success in these areas will unlock new opportunities for growth. We look forward to working with the innovative CSR team globally and further strengthening our technology presence in Cambridge and the UK."

Bluetooth, the short range wireless communications standard, was invented by Ericsson in 1994. But it didn't take long for work on the standard to start at other sites.

One place in particular where pioneering work was undertaken was in Cambridge, specifically at Cambridge Consultants. That work proceeded rapidly, as did the market, to the point where it was ready to be spun out.

That move was made in 1998, with the formation of Cambridge Silicon Radio, which then floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2004, with a big pay out for some of its founders.

Amongst the technical challenges for the industry in the 1990s was not only offering Bluetooth functionality on a single chip, but also enabling that functionality on CMOS, rather than an exotic process technology. These challenges were solved by CSR, as it became known.

Being in the market early meant CSR was able to develop and exploit a number of niches. By 2005, it had already launched the fifth generation of its BlueCore device. But while CSR earned a good living in the early days of Bluetooth, commoditisation began to see it come under threat. It therefore started on an acquisition trail to diversify its business.

Its first acquisition, for a modest $17million, was Clarity Technologies, a clear voice capture specialist. This was followed in short order by acquisition of GPS specialist Nordnav, 3G company Ubinetics and positioning company Cambridge Positioning Systems. In 2009, it bought GPS chip specialist SiRF for $136m.

But the jaw dropper happened in 2011 with the merger with Zoran – a move which was designed to create a 'global leader' in wireless connectivity, imaging, video, location aware and audio products. Despite paying close to $680m for the multimedia chip developer and maintaining the chairman, chief executive and chief financial officer positions, the deal was billed as having the potential to double its revenues.

Then, in 2012, Samsung bought CSR's mobile technology business in a deal worth $310m. The deal gave Samsung full access to CSR's mobile connectivity and location technology, as well as relevant patents and more than 300 CSR employees.

All of a sudden, CSR was a target. The first approach came from Microchip, which made an undisclosed offer for the company, rejected as being too small.

But a story in the Financial Times alerted the world to the fact that CSR was in talks with another unnamed company, with a deal 'weeks away' from a conclusion. Was that company Qualcomm and, if so, what was the hook?

CSR has a number of technologies which could prove attractive to Qualcomm, but it may well be that CSRmesh is the big attraction. The recently launched technology – winner of New Electronic Product of the Year at the British Engineering Excellence Awards – is being seen as a potential 'ZigBee killer'.

CSRmesh enables Bluetooth low energy devices to not only receive and act upon messages, but also to repeat those messages to surrounding devices. In this way, Bluetooth Smart gets extended range and can be turned into a mesh network for the Internet of Things. Or, as Mollenkamp said, the Internet of Everything.

Graham Pitcher

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