Remember the last time your dishwasher texted you when it broke? Unless you're Bill Gates, you probably have the kind that just sits there and leaks while you're on vacation. Such smart devices do exist, but connected appliances are most likely to be sold as part of a complete package, with touchscreen controls and sophisticated solutions most people don't really need.
But simple solutions to large problems -- like a suddenly dangerous appliance alerting you to its problem -- are always valued. That's why Texas Instruments (NYS: TXN) designed the SimpleLink wireless processor, which should be able to get just about anything with a silicon controller online with ease. If this is what manufacturers and consumers need for broader adoption, it could position TI as the go-to company for getting hooked into the Internet of things.
What does it do?
By going as bare-bones as possible, TI's new Wi-Fi chip can be connected to any existing microcontroller (found pretty much everywhere these days) to handle simple transmissions. The SimpleLink processor supposedly uses only half a percent of the typical Wi-Fi device's resources, but there's no operating system required, according to the company. That sounds perfect for objects that don't need to offer much beyond status updates or long-distance on-off switches.
Why is that good news?
The consumer market for connected appliances is tremendously underserved at the moment, CES hype notwithstanding. Although high-end electronics like refrigerators seem headed for the full Internet treatment (TVs are already there), smaller electronics like blenders and toasters could be a big untapped market. There's also the promise, offered in a retro-style TI promotional video, of greater control over factory processes.
Will TI get away with it?
TI isn't the only player in the Internet of things space, but its SimpleLink implementation seems to solve the problems of proximity that early RFID solutions ran into. Alcatel-Lucent (NYS: ALU) went this route with touchatag, but it hasn't seen much adoption and has moved toward mobile NFC payments instead. Unless the company devises an elegant long-range solution like TI's, it's unlikely to be a major competitor.
Google (NAS: GOOG) has a research lab focused on automation, with the Internet of things as one goal. It's also partnered with IBM (NYS: IBM) and its nonprofit tech foundation to push an open-source protocol for machine communications. TI is a member of the foundation and should wind up with a cooperative relationship with the software-and-services industry.
If you're a Broadcom (NAS: BRCM) shareholder, there seems little reason to fear. TI's chip attacks the lowest of low-end connectivity needs, and it isn't likely to run afoul of Broadcom's blazingly fast new Wi-Fi chips. In fact, this might be a good opportunity to place money on both ends of the wireless spectrum, as a device with no operating system ought to need something to hold its hand when it gets online.
In all, this could be a big development for the Internet of things, if TI's solution turns out to be the one the public's been waiting for. Keep track of the rapid advancements in this space -- add the major players to your Watchlist. If you're looking for more key players cashing in on a connected world, you need to take a look at The Motley Fool's free report on three hidden winners of the mobile revolution. Reserve your free copy now.
At the time this article was published Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter for more news and insights. The Motley Fool owns shares of IBM, Texas Instruments, and Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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