2013-08-02

Co.Labs

Wearable Tech, Payments, Watches...Why Apple Bought Passif

What on Earth does Apple have planned for the expertise of Passif Semiconductor, the chip-making firm it just bought?



Over the years Apple has bought a number of smaller companies whose expertise covers different areas in semiconductor manufacturing, including spending about $280 million on PA Semi—a fabless company which knew all about low power-consumption chip design. Now it's bought another company with similar knowledge, the very small Passif Semi. Why?

Not very much is known about Passif Semiconductor Corp. It's employees on LinkedIn label it as having "1-10" staff, and we know that in June 2008 it received $1.6 million in venture funding from Khosla Ventures...a VC firm which we know likes placing cash in early-stage companies that work in computing, silicon, mobile, and other similar sectors. We also know that Passif's work is about "switch based receivers with a low power consumption and a small footprint," which means that the company's staff know all about making wireless chips and the kind of silicon that's friendly to mobile devices because it doesn't consume much power.

A quick search for the patents owned by the company, by which we may guess at the kind of IP Apple has bought, reveals not many results, but there are two that are particularly interesting.

First check out U.S. patent number 20110260839. It's for an "autonomous battery-free microwave frequency communications system." In its plainest form this patent describes a system that captures energy from a microwave signal by an antenna, stores it in a capacitor, and uses that stored energy to operate a built-in transceiver which autonomously sends out pre-determined data. The patent even notes that the incoming energy can come from "various communication forms, such as wireless network protocols or cellular communications."

You may have recognized the gadget described in this patent: It's very similar to an RFID tag service, where the radio frequency signals are both the carrier of digital chatter between a tag and the interrogating computer (such as a subway turnstile) and the source of energy that powers the transmitter (in a device like a smart subway ticket). Essentially Passif is talking about a contactless short-range communications system that can work even without a powered device like an iPhone in the loop. Interestingly, Apple has in the RFID space, including for ticketing purposes.

The second interesting patent is U.S. number 2013032578, an application for an "Un-tethered wireless stereo speaker system." This novel radio setup imagines an autonomous speaker system that establishes a temporary bi-directional wireless link with an audio source device. The first speaker chats to the source by radio, and extracts the first audio channel from the stream. The second speaker slaves to the first one and extracts its own secondary channel from the audio signal stream. Essentially it's like a simple ad-hoc Bluetooth stereo system without too much fiddling with Bluetooth settings—although Bluetooth is indeed mentioned in the patent as an option. Passif's proposal is better than standard Bluetooth, according to the patent, because of confusion over the automated sharing of channels between left and right speakers.

Immediately one can imagine Apple taking Passif's idea and building in a new AirPlay protocol to its future devices and promising a simpler and more hassle-free Bluetooth speaker accessory list from its third-party accessory suppliers. Indeed there's already a hint in current developer Apple TV code that one tap configuration for remote control units is going into iOS7.

But of course it's not just audio data that could be sent this way. The patent simply describes signals that obey established protocols, and this could be plausibly stretched to include video formats or perhaps simple data sharing.

And that's where the first patent comes in. It sounds exactly like the sort of low-power-signals technology that Apple would love to harness for mobile payment solutions. The payment tech may be an expansion of Apple's existing, and expanding, in-store smartphone payments service EasyPay—with NFC tags simplifying the process of purchasing devices. It may also be connected to Apple's Passbook scheme that would give iPhones the power to act as secure RFID ticketing systems. And, ultimately, it could help Apple turn its iPhone into a sophisticated digital credit card replacement device...something that's long been mooted.

Alternatively Apple could integrate Passif's knowledge of low-power wireless and comms and short-range audio into a design for an accessory like a smartwatch. Optimized low-power chip and comms designs could help solve one of the big problems with current-gen smartwatches, which is short battery life. It's even possible the RFID tech in Passif's patent could help turn any iWatch into a convenient wireless payment dongle—one that's far less risky to use than bumping an expensive iPhone against a store's reader pad.

Ultimately, of course, we don't know exactly what Apple has plans for. But its acquisition of PA Semi all those years ago definitely bore fruit in the successful homespun AX series of chips in the iPhone and iPad, so let's hope something equally innovative comes from the fresh purchase.

[Image: Flickr user JamesIrwin]






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