The Internet of things is coming, but in addition to ubiquitous broadband connecting devices wherever they are, we also need low-power, cheap chips that are smart enough to collect information and then communicate it back to the web. ARM, the chip licensing company, has figured out one way to do this with a new microcontroller, one of those low-end chips that reside on devices from your microwave to your Bluetooth headset. ARM has added some higher-level math functionality to its microcontroller line with its Cortex-M4 chip. If we’re gonna connect everything to the web, that means even the tiny brains inside relatively dumb devices need a boost.
So ARM added some digital signal processing capabilities to the chip. Think of it as sending the silicon to school so it can learn algebra–after realizing that basic math doesn’t cut it anymore. Already NXP, Texas Instruments and ST Microelectronics have licensed the cores and expect products containing the chip to hit the market in 2011. Some areas we’ll see it are in smart appliances for “talking to” to the smart grid (GigaOM Pro sub. req’d), and as a way to add better audio quality to everything from headsets to Mp3 players without adding a lot of cost.
Like all ARM chips, the M4 was developed for low-power usage, which will be essential for building out a web-connected sensor network in places where electrical outlets don’t reach. Machine to machine connectivity isn’t just something the carriers are counting on for growth— it’s also a potential boon for the chip industry. ARM’s new chips will likely compete with stand-alone microcontrollers from companies such as Atmel or Renesas. The microcontroller market is a $15 billion industry, according to NXP, and adding the brainpower to enable this low-end silicon to reach out to the web is good for ARM and good for our connected future.