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Media Tablets And Smart Phones Drive The Industry

Burgeoning demand for media tablets, smart phones, and other “smart” electronic devices is giving birth to a new era in the electronics market—and changing the way many supply-chain companies think about serving designers and producers of mobile communications devices and other consumer electronics products.

Shipments of smart phones and media tablets are expected to rise at compound annual growth rates of 29% and 72%, respectively, for the years 2010 through 2015, according to a recent report from IHS iSuppli. The same report notes that sales of such multifunction devices are beginning to eclipse sales of single-task consumer electronics devices such as MP3 players, portable navigation devices, and digital cameras.

For many industry watchers this represents a sea change in the electronics/computing industry, and it is opening new doors for suppliers focused on delivering more versatile solutions to design engineers looking to create a more unique, all-encompassing user experience in everything from tablets to automobile entertainment systems.

Shifting Demands

“When we buy gadgets, I think it’s all going to be about personal computing,” says Rajeev Kumar, consumer product line manager for the Multimedia Applications Division of chipset manufacturer Freescale. “[Users want] access to the Internet, they want apps, and they want a user interface that is cool and fun to use.”

And they want more of it. Shipments of media tablets will rise to 262 million units in 2015, up from 17 million in 2010. Smart-phone shipments will increase to more than 1 billion units in 2015, up from 294 million in 2010, the iSuppli study predicts.

For companies such as Freescale, this creates new business opportunities for their microprocessors, microcontrollers, sensors, and related products as demand for traditional media tablets such as the Apple iPad and other multi-use devices continues to grow.

“There are really a whole lot of device categories,” Kumar explains, pointing to medical tablets for non-invasive procedures, e-learning devices, and “ruggedized” tablets for military and industrial applications as just a few examples. “Inside of Freescale, we consider those derivatives of tablets. As the industry is getting more familiar with these types of devices… [companies] have to make sure they have a good story about how they move content on and off of a device.”

OEMs Respond

That means many OEMs are less focused on the hardware and low-level software going into their products and more concerned about the products’ higher level functionality.

“Ten years ago, I could go to a customer with a bag of chips and say, ‘go design,’” Kumar explains. “Now they need more. OEMs have really moved their investment from the hardware and low-level software to the application and the user interface.”

Companies that supply advanced components with wide-ranging capabilities—and the service that goes with them—can win big in this new arena. Freescale points to its i.MX6 processor series, which it began sampling in June and is built to enhance the design and overall performance of consumer electronics products, enabling features such as augmented reality, environment sensing, mapping, and gaming.

The bottom line is that suppliers are finding new ways to help designers build the most creative, versatile products to meet consumer and professional demands. Kumar cites the incorporation of connected displays into more and more consumer electronics as a more basic example of the drive toward a more interesting, personalized experience.

“The Apple iPhone taught the world that if you put a cool display onto a device and give the reader a good experience, you can significantly increase the value of that device itself,” Kumar notes. “What we see happening is that a lot of companies, no matter what they are making, want to provide that cool user interface. And that really hits our core competency—providing a piece of silicon that can do it all.”

Underlying all of this is a growing trend toward connectivity itself. The explosion in mobile devices in particular is creating exploding demand for bandwidth, which also creates new opportunities on the networking side, says Freescale’s Preet Virk, global networking segment market lead.

“The connectivity in terms of subscribers is growing—and it’s not just people getting connected, but machines, too,” Virk says. “Whether you are talking about a smart phone, a smart medical device, smart energy, or a connected car, non-human connections are also growing… and you need to have a portfolio that goes into the infrastructure to make these connections work.”

Virk cites the rapid growth of Internet connections worldwide, noting that global Internet protocol (IP) traffic has increased eightfold over the past five years and is expected to grow fourfold over the next five years, according to recent research from Cisco’s Visual Networking Index Forecast for 2010-2015, released in June. This creates a wealth of opportunity throughout the supply chain.

“The expectation that people have when they touch a piece of electronics [has changed]. They want the capability to connect seamlessly to the net…. They want cloud-based computing that allows you to store content,” notes Kumar.

“Today, you can really say that about the Apple devices and a couple of others, but we think it will become prevalent over the next five to 10 years across more devices,” he adds. “We think we’re entering, fundamentally, a different era in the industry.”

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About the Author

Victoria Fraza Kickham | Distribution Editor

Victoria Kickham is the distribution editor for Electronic Design magazine, SourceESB and, where she covers issues related to the electronics supply chain. Victoria started out as a general assignment reporter for several Boston-area newspapers before joining Industrial Distribution magazine, where she spent 14 years covering industrial markets. She served as ID’s managing editor from 2000 to 2010. Victoria has a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Hampshire and a master’s degree in English from Northeastern University.