Broadcom's Internet of Things Strategy Could Yield Bumper Crop For Developers

Most people -- especially developers -- don't know or care about what Broadcom is. For decades however, some of the biggest brands in the industry (Apple, Samsung, Dell, etc.) have relied on the semiconductor maker to enable the computers and mobile devices they sell for network and GPS connectivity. If the company had a "Broadcom Inside" logo, you'd be shocked to learn how many devices could bear it.

The company likes to innovate too. I can remember back to 1993 when, as a journalist at PC Week, Broadcom briefed me on how it figured-out how to run Ethernet over anything. Case in point; barbed-wire. Talk about secure connectivity! But unless you manufactured Ethernet adapter boards, why would you care?

Today, few people even know what an adapter board is. Barbed-wire (and most hard wire) has taken a back seat to air (i.e.: WiFi). Though Broadcom executives won't cite an exact number, they estimate that 75 percent of all mobile devices on the market have Broadcom's wireless chips.  Abstracted by host operating systems like iOS and Android, most developers rightfully pay no attention to chip-level connectivity issues.

But with Broadcom's new initiative into the so-called Internet of Things (a.k.a. IoT; where everything from clothing to vehicles can send and receive data via the Internet) announced this week, now may be the time for developers to note that another tipping point is upon them.

The key to that tipping point isn't necessarily the miniaturization trend that allows a complete WiFi device powered by (and mounted onto) an ordinary camera battery to squeeze into a sweater button (Broadcom CEO Scott McGregor showed one such device to a handful of journalists during a private briefing yesterday). Nor is it how companies like Broadcom have figured out how to stretch the camera battery's life for such tiny connected things to last a year or more. The tipping point has more to do with how Broadcom will make its technology available to innovators in small quantities at a low cost; "Single digit dollars" as McGregor put it. Broadcom has dubbed the initiative "Get WICED" (pronunciation: wik-ed).

To the extent that Broadcom serves customers like Apple, Samsung, and Dell, the company is an OEM well-suited to working with (and supporting) a small number of customers who buy millions of semiconductors at a time. In contrast, Get WICED represents a 180-degree departure from serving a few with many to serving many with few. According to McGregor though, the opportunity is big because of the millions of entrepreneurs and innovators who will dream up all the newfangled ideas.

"Thousands of companies will make [wearable technology]" said McGregor. "Just search the term wearable on KickStarter." I followed his instructions, and 85 items turned up but not all of them were wearable technology. Even so, it's not hard to envision many of the shopkeepers on Etsy turning to technologies like Broadcom's WICED to further differentiate their offerings. MacGregor anticipates "all kinds of innovation from little companies."

All this said, it's one thing to make a cool garment. It's another to sew some WICED-enabled buttons onto it and make them do something fun or interesting. It requires a different skill set --- one that's likely to involve a developer.  Reminiscent of how developers raced to flood Apple's App Store with millions of iOS applications, the ability to program "things" and easily bring them to market (think Etsy, Kickstarter, eBay, etc.) will inspire developers to foment a revolution that could make the iOS and Android revolutions pale by comparison. Thing-makers who want to connect and activate their things but don't have the technical chops will need to partner with developers to get the job done; developers that know how to work with embedded Linux for example. The WICED Platform supports Linux which in turn can handle code execution and HTTP serving and processing if need be.

For developers, the key will be in the APIs and development kits. While not every thing will be accessible via a RESTful API, REST and HTTP will no doubt play a big role. Aginova was one of the companies with Broadcom-enabled devices on display at the briefing.  According to Aginova president Ashok Sabata, data is retrieved from Aginova's products via HTTP. Unfortunately, Sabata didn't have someone more technical on hand to explain the gory details (i.e.: is it REST?). But he acknowledged that a stripped-down HTTP server (to accommodate the tiny platform's footprint) handles data requests. If you're a developer, then you know what happens next. Once things like sweater buttons are responding to HTTP-based data requests, the rest will be history (no pun intended).

Update 8/30/2013: See Why WiFi Could Be Both a Blessing and a Curse For The Internet of Things.

By David Berlind. David is the editor-in-chief of You can reach him at Connect to David on Twitter at @dberlind or Google+, or  friend him on Facebook.

Be sure to read the next Internet of Things article: Why WiFi Could Be Both a Blessing and a Curse For The Internet of Things