Monday, April 28, 2008
Interview with Eric Broockman, Alereon
Austin-based Alereon (www.alereon.com) is a venture-backed startup developing semiconductors for the wireless USB market. We recently spoke with Eric Broockman, the firm's CEO, about the company and its newest chipsets, which it is introducing this week.
For those readers who aren't familiar with Alereon, can you describe how your USB chips are used?
Eric Broockman: We are a fabless semiconductor company, funded by venture capitalists--some of which are located in Austin, and other across various cities in the United States. We do chips that implement a new kind of radio technology called ultra wideband, which uses many different frequencies to transmit signals. It's part of the wireless USB standard, and is just the next step of the evolution of the USB standard. It brings the convenience of wireless to the USB standard. To date, our product has been part of the early introduction of this technology, for things like wireless USB dongles and hubs. You can put a hub somewhere in your office, attached a printer to it with a USB cable, and access it wirelessly. Wireless USB can give you the convenience of going in and out of your home office with your laptop, without having to necessarily buy a docking station to get to your printer.
In the office, some of the most interesting applications will be coming in the second half from Alereon, which is the ability to buy an Express card to slide into your laptop, which will wirelessly connect you to a graphics adapter. This will be a little box, purchased at a store like Best Buy, which will be made by one of our customers. It won't be an Alereon end product, but our customers will use Alereon chips in it, and it will be substantially designed by Alereon. The box will connect to the HDMI or DVI port of your HD television, which will enable you to sit on your couch or put your laptop on a coffee table, and anything shown on that laptop will be reproduced on the screen of your HD television. If you want to review photos of your last vacation, or work on a project on your TV, you can do that. If you want to show a PowerPoint on TV, you can do that too, or you can watch those YouTube videos. Pretty much anything you can do on a laptop can be shown on your brand new HD television--turning it into a really big monitor.
Talk about where the wireless USB market is nowadays -- it seems like this market has been somewhat slow in starting up -- when do you think consumers will really start see this on their desktop or laptop?
Eric Broockman: There are four Tier 1 laptop manufacturers that have ultrawideband products available today. Right now, though, they are the only thing, you've got to purchase a wireless USB hub to connect your peripherals. That provides some convenience, but it isn't going to be a killer application. The reason why is most of the early implementations have used a chipset from another startup company, not an Alereon chipset. We've been focused, to date, on peripherals and not on PCs. The problem is these early PC implementations have had relatively low throughput, a modest 35 Megabits or so. Because of that, we decided last year as a company that we needed to accelerate UWB by delivering on the promise of the throughput and efficiency of UWB, so we're introducing a PCI Express solution this week that can be used in a laptop or in a half mini card slot, which provides well over 200 Mbits of throughput over a wireless USB connection. What that enables is products like a wireless graphic adapter, which is a much more compelling application than a USB hub.
Likewise, that will also enable office applications, such as wireless docking stations -- which have no connectors on it, which allow the connection of laptops and a docking station via wireless USB. Instead of having to dock, undock, and go through suspend/resume/hibernate, and having to pop a lever to disconnect your laptop, this will enable to you to just pick up your laptop and walk out of the office. It will wireless disconnect, and when you walk back into the office it wireless reconnects. The primary benefit of this will that it will bring lots of simplicity to a dock, and you can hide your docking station underneath your monitor or what have you.
In Q3 or Q4 of this year, consumers will also see a wireless hard drive, both in a small battery powered form factor and a larger, "wall-wart" form factor. So, you might buy a really thing laptop with limited connectivity, but you'll be able to have wireless connections to a whole bunch of additional storage without having to connect a USB hard drive. With the battery powered version, you can put it in your laptop case or in your briefcase, and use it to upload photos, or archive your laptop to that battery powered storage, in a two by two by one quarter inch mobile storage or battery powered storage device.
So it sounds like you're trying to get this market started up?
Eric Broockman: All of the PC platforms are making the transition to the Intel Santa Rosa platform. The Santa Rosa platform has PCI Express and Express card slots built into it, and it's a very high speed internal bus. The current companies that supply wireless USB chipsets are using internal USB connections, and because of the software that makes them compatible with all USB applications, it goes through a lot of protocol conversions in the host, which ends up slowing down that connection to around 35 to 40 Megabits.
I think we saw some of the not-so-positive reviews for those chips...
Eric Broockman: The reviewers overlooked some things, but their concerns over throughput are a valid one. We just didn't see any of the other companies working very quickly on high throughput solutions for laptops. We felt that was slowing down the whole marketplace. We want to ship our chips in devices, but devices aren't going to ship in volume until laptops have high throughput. We thought we'd solve that by developing and introducing products which allow you to have high throughput on a PC, and therefore high throughput devices.
How long has Alereon been developing your chips?
Eric Broockman: The company has been around since the middle of 2003, and this June/July we will be five years old. To date, we have been developing chips that can be used in peripheral products, such as personal media players, cell phones, or printers. We started introducing our first products last year with Iogear, a wireless hub and dongle.
How big are your operations in Austin, and it looks like you have some operations in India?
Eric Broockman: We have a small design team in India, six people there. They're providing us some new capability for CMOS RF design. Here in Austin, which is our primary location, we have 68 people.
What's next for your company?
Eric Broockman: We took a strategic investment from Samsung Ventures in October of 2006, and we will be announcing in May a strategic investment from a wireless carrier. Those are interesting data points, and represent an endorsement of the capabilities of the company, that firms of that type of prestige have chosen to invest in the company. We also think we're well positioned versus other startups, and have a history of executing and being first to market with technology related to the standard. We were the first to radio, the first to be certified for the USB standards, and the first to have a solution that you can ship in any country, and support any frequency band, anywhere in the world. We're about to be the first company to ship a solution for PCI Express, which is high throughput, and can be used worldwide.