IoT markets and their patent landscapes

IoT markets and their patent landscapes

The world of the Internet of Things is becoming increasingly complex in terms of both markets and technology definitions. And that is before we even get to the patents

Trying to understand and anticipate how the Internet of Things (IoT) IP landscape will evolve is still an imprecise art. Between 2014 and 2016, Gartner revised its IoT market projections significantly. While some numbers rose and others fell, it seems clear that the overall market is still a large one. From a patent ownership and development standpoint, other trends are starting to emerge which could have a significant impact on what the IoT landscape will look like further out. This article examines some of the patent activity in the different IoT segments, taking a broad perspective. We observe that growth for patents in the areas of things and analytics is up, with many of the leaders being as expected; from an M&A perspective, this is still an active market. We also observe that this activity is more about technology than intellectual property. To begin with, let us set some parameters around defining those segments and look at the growth projections for particular markets.

The four main technology segments in IoT and their definitions are illustrated in Figure 1. However, the lines defining the types of product which belong to each segment are not always clear, particularly for the things segment. For example, a smartphone can be a thing (eg, an always-on microphone), but it can also be a gateway which communicates with a smartwatch via Bluetooth and relays the data back to the network. A thing may be a standalone device, such as a heart rate monitor chest strap or a smart lightbulb, or a complex device such as an automobile, with many sensors and cellular connectivity. In addition to data being sent from things to the network, things can communicate directly with each other in a peer-to-peer fashion or by using a gateway as an intermediary. The types of product that fall under each category will depend on the ecosystem of a particular application.

Figure 1. Main technology segments

Figure 2. Year-on-year growth rate forecast by shipment – 2014

Figure 3. Year-on-year growth rate forecast by shipment – 2016

Figure 4. Market shipment forecast – 2014

Figure 5. Market shipment forecast – 2016

IoT market growth

We compared Gartner’s 2016 projections to those from 2014 (Figures 2 to 5) and focused on the smart home and automotive segments. In 2014 the largest shipments were forecast for the smart home and automotive segments. The highest growth rate then was within the medical devices segment, followed by automotive. This changed somewhat in 2016. The growth expectations for medical were radically reduced, while those for the automotive segment are forecast to increase over the next five years, fuelled by self-driving and connected cars. The industrial segment was also projected as having more growth in the 2016 projections than in 2014.

The overall IoT unit shipment forecast through 2020 has been reduced by roughly 17%, compared to 2014 projections. This is due predominantly to reduced smart home projections, although this segment still has the highest level of IoT shipments because of the sheer number of electronic products which can be included as part of a comprehensive connected home. Additionally, the forecast for industrial over the next few years remains positive.

The 2014 and 2016 market shipment forecasts are extremely similar starting in 2016 and going through 2020. In both forecasts, the overall unit shipment charts show a 17% decrease by 2020.

Both the smart home and industrial segments are complex in composition and require a deeper look.

Figure 6. Year-on-year growth rate forecast by shipment 2014 versus 2016

Figure 7. Smart home sub-markets shipment forecast 2014 versus 2016

Smart home

The smart home market projections are clearer when the market is divided into two segments: entertainment and home automation and management (Figures 6 and 7).

The home automation and management segment will drive substantial growth in the smart home market. This covers everything in the home with sensors and network modules used to provide anywhere, anytime controlling and monitoring ability, and may include appliances, surveillance, lighting and temperature control systems. While a large variety of products are available, consumers and industry alike are still trying to determine where the actual need resides. This part of the smart home market is in a rapid growth stage. It looks set to eventually surpass the entertainment segment shipments and dominate the entire smart home space.

Industrial

Let us look at the manufacturing segment (Figures 8 and 9). While an increasing number of sensors will be introduced in the industrial market, development will likely be incremental, with well-understood use cases; hence, the growth rate in this segment is much lower than in other IoT market segments.

Figure 8. Year-on-year growth rate forecast by shipment 2014 versus 2016

Figure 9. Industrial sub-markets shipment forecast 2014 versus 2016

The evolution in industrial may come from wearables which are designed to provide field workers with real-time communication for remote diagnostic support. For example, miners wearing smart glasses with video transmission could allow above-ground workers to see what they see underground, thereby shortening field-problem resolution times. However, such applications are at a nascent state.

Patenting activity in different market spaces

Early in 2015, TechInsights analysed 38 companies active in IoT and their patenting activity in four specific IoT segments. For this article, we updated the analysis on the original set and for 2017 added a similar list of companies, some of which have since been acquired. Table 1 lists the number of patents for each of the companies in each of the four IoT technology segments. Using publicly available tools, we retrieved the US portfolios (granted patents and pending applications) with title, abstract and independent claims for each company. Next, using a proprietary tool, we compared these portfolios to classifiers created by subject-matter experts, placing each patent in the best match among the four IoT segments. There is some subjectivity in the specific placement of each patent in one segment or another, considering that there is a level of accuracy and recall in any analytic investigation – as well as the blurred boundaries already mentioned between some segments.

In 2015 Samsung, IBM, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Nokia and Intel ranked as the top six companies in terms of number of patents in the IoT space. Also in 2015 a strong percentage of Samsung’s, Qualcomm’s and Intel’s IoT patent portfolios lay in the gateway/network spaces; while IBM and Microsoft IoT patents were concentrated on the compute/storage spaces, since technology in these segments was established well before IoT became so prevalent. Many companies with large patent portfolios which were also big players in the traditional mobile and data centre markets are now expanding into IoT.

The company with the highest number of things patents was Samsung, which had double those of the crowded pack following it – including Panasonic, Microsoft and Qualcomm. The entity with the highest number of analytics patents was Microsoft, followed closely by IBM and Alphabet (Google), then Sony, Samsung and Facebook.

Looking at 2017, we see that from the top 20 from our 2015 list, analytics had the largest growth at 17%, followed closely by gateway/network at 16%, with things at 13% and compute/storage at 3%. The group with the largest overall number of patents among the 20 is compute/storage, followed by gateway/network. The top six companies continue to be well represented across all four segments. Samsung, IBM and Microsoft remain at the top, while Intel moved up to the number four spot, with healthy increases in things, gateway/network and compute/storage. LG Electronics and Google both leap-frogged over Nokia – the former based on strong growth in gateway/network and the latter with consistent innovation efforts in all four areas. Of our top 10 in 2017, only Sony’s and Nokia’s overall portfolios dropped from 2015 according to our IoT model. The leaders in each segment have not changed: Samsung in things, Qualcomm in gateway/network, IBM in compute/storage and Microsoft in analytics. Growth over all four segments was consistent for Samsung (12%), IBM (11%) and Microsoft (11%), with more significant growth being observed for Intel (22%) and LG (24%).

Cisco’s acquisition of Jasper – an industry-leading cloud-based IoT service platform provider – means that it is now well positioned to look towards the compute/storage space.

Amazon has a significant number of patents, specifically in the compute/storage and analytics segments. It scored a significant success in the things area with its Echo, which has been referenced as a step forward in consumer acceptance of IoT devices. It will be worth watching to see whether that growth continues.

With its purchase of ARM, Softbank is a strong newcomer. However, from a patent perspective, more intellectual property came from Softbank’s legacy rather than from the existing ARM portfolio. Its acquisition of ARM does mean that it has acquired technology which bolsters its position with some other large traditional IoT players, especially in the areas of low-power mobile system-on-a-chip cores.

TDK’s purchases of Micronas in 2015 and InvenSense in 2017 are obvious steps towards it becoming a more important player in IoT. By adding InvenSense, TDK has strengthened its position in new sensor solutions in IoT, automotive and information and communications technology; it also brings a significant number of IoT assets, particularly in the things space. All of this makes it a more prominent player in IoT intellectual property.

Table 1Comparison of 2015 and 2017 company ranking of IoT patents in four IoT segments

2015

Companies

Things

Gateway/network

Compute/storage

Analytics

Grand total

Samsung

3351

6203

4384

1204

15142

IBM

1452

466

10296

2740

14954

Microsoft

1739

574

8375

3221

13909

Qualcomm

1573

7006

1479

572

10630

Nokia / ALU

1162

5032

2835

726

9755

Intel

1466

3260

4402

614

9742

Alphabet

1347

2128

2888

2676

9039

LG

763

5270

1307

643

7983

Sony

1667

1775

2361

1384

7187

Ericsson

533

4888

1439

246

7106

Panasonic

1964

1933

1641

773

6311

Cisco

1090

934

3200

664

5888

Apple

1489

1635

1718

648

5490

GE

1300

441

1473

893

4107

Bosch

1439

159

1105

491

3194

TI

984

982

703

175

2844

Philips

940

560

405

470

2375

NXP / Freescale

626

559

704

45

1934

ST Micro

791

339

721

64

1915

Amazon

191

89

1006

608

1894

Facebook

57

35

554

1095

1741

Renesas

367

270

667

47

1351

Mediatek

180

654

188

27

1049

Infineon

326

209

339

35

909

Salesforce

20

4

538

184

746

Gemalto

150

49

254

15

468

Microchip

120

81

243

7

451

Atmel

99

133

142

5

379

Alibaba

5

12

122

110

249

ARM

53

10

121

2

186

Pioneer

36

21

32

43

132

Invensense

107

2

5

1

115

Pace

13

16

15

6

50

Splunk

5

0

16

24

45

Baidu

0

0

11

4

15

Micronas

10

0

2

0

12

Tableau

0

0

0

11

11

Qlik

0

0

0

6

6

2017

Companies

Things

Gateway/network

Compute/storage

Analytics

Grand total

Samsung

3865

7042

4852

1209

16968

IBM

1582

603

11000

3370

16555

Microsoft

1996

783

8849

3772

15400

Intel

1868

4202

5076

714

11860

Qualcomm

1805

7884

1516

564

11769

LG Electronics

895

6887

1413

684

9879

Alphabet (Google)

1604

2200

3090

2983

9877

Nokia

1163

5301

2443

618

9525

Ericsson

615

5734

1427

220

7996

Sony

1711

2010

2109

1263

7093

Apple

1914

2107

1832

696

6549

Cisco

1230

1239

3265

637

6371

Panasonic

1846

1614

1474

735

5669

GE

1261

509

1308

904

3982

Bosch

1500

177

1060

528

3265

Amazon

437

171

1729

908

3245

TI

1034

1003

687

153

2877

Softbank/ARM

269

1543

779

172

2763

Philips

1074

663

415

496

2648

Facebook

97

91

643

1573

2404

NXP / Freescale

736

752

786

43

2317

STMicro

894

352

718

67

2031

Mediatek

205

838

190

25

1258

Renesas

344

247

607

42

1240

Infineon

348

247

320

35

950

Microchip/Atmel

230

220

390

11

851

Salesforce

17

10

477

191

695

Gemalto

189

96

297

16

598

Arris/Pace

67

102

218

79

466

TDK/Micronas

167

106

88

64

425

Alibaba

15

17

225

138

395

ThomaBravo/Qlik

31

0

139

42

212

Invensense

166

3

4

4

177

Splunk

12

0

54

85

151

Pioneer

30

16

21

28

95

Baidu

4

0

33

13

50

Tableau

0

0

0

19

19

An interesting and still developing situation is that of Thoma Bravo, LLC, a US private equity and growth capital firm which has raised more than $1.5 billion in investor commitments since 2008. Compuware, which it acquired in 2014, was a leader in both application performance monitoring and mainframe solutions. Riverbed provided the application performance infrastructure. Both were involved in the compute/storage segments. Compuware and Riverbed added guided analytics, while the purchase of Qlik added visual analytics, delivering intuitive solutions for self-service data visualisation. As a result, Thoma Bravo has positioned itself as a presence in IoT intellectual property, especially in compute/storage and analytics. It will be interesting to see what its next move will be.

As was recently announced, Renesas has used the Cadence Perspec System Verifier to verify its new microcontroller unit design for IoT applications. Renesas microcontrollers have more IP blocks and complex sub-systems than existing designs, resulting in thousands of combinations of potential access conflicts. The previous Renesas approach involved a manual process for creating use-case test scenarios, which was time consuming due to the large number of combinations which needed to be verified. By replacing its legacy process with the Perspec System Verifier, Renesas achieved the benefits of an efficient, algorithm-based system level verification solution which enabled the automatic generation of complex test scenarios. From an IP perspective, its influx of new assets is holding steady. It is expected that more innovation will come from the microcontroller testing environment, with less emphasis on gateway/network activity.

Figure 10. TDK’s acquisition of InvenSense

InvenSense added sensors

Figure 11. Qualcomm’s takeover bid for NXP

NXP enhanced three IoT segments

Figure 12. Cisco’s acquisition of Jasper

Jasper’s IP was focused

Figure 13. Softbank’s takeover of ARM

ARM complemented Softbank

M&A activity

Now let us turn our attention to some of the acquisition activity which has taken place in each of the four segments and observe the portfolio impact of those mergers in more detail. Each of the patent landscape plots was created using patents from each company. Each dot (Figure 10 to 13) represents a patent, while the three-word clusters around the peaks represent the most common words from patents in those peaks.

Things

TDK’s acquisition of InvenSense, announced in December 2016, is an example of a company focused on things strengthening its presence in the technology segment (Figure 10). This can be seen as a continuation of TDK’s strategy, building on the markets for Micronas’ magnetic sensors. InvenSense is focused on micro-electrical mechanical systems sensors such as gyroscopes, accelerometers and microphones which are increasingly found in a variety of IoT applications (eg, wearables, audio control). Acquisitions such as these are driving TDK’s transition from a smartphone component supplier to an IoT leader.

The patent landscape shows a significant cluster of intellectual property related to microphones and sensors which the InvenSense acquisition brings to the TDK IP portfolio (approximately 500 InvenSense US publications).

Gateway/network

Qualcomm, the leader in mobile communication processors, has the highest proportion of its IoT-related intellectual property in the gateway/network technology segments. While its massive $47 billion takeover bid of NXP, announced last October, is not expected to close until the end of 2017, the news came hot on the heels of NXP’s acquisition of Freescale Semiconductor in late 2015. The combined NXP/Freescale is now a leader in both the automotive and near-field communication markets. The intellectual property of the new entity spans the things, gateway/network and compute/storage IoT segments, with all three now appearing to be improved by the NXP portfolio (Figure 11).

Compute/storage

Cisco, the world’s largest networking company, has long held a strong presence in the compute/storage and gateway/network IoT technology segments. The $1.4 billion acquisition of Jasper in March 2016 is an example of an equipment supplier expanding into the IoT services markets (Figure 12). Jasper’s control centre platform is a cloud-based solution which can be configured to meet specialised enterprise needs across a wide range of business models, technologies and industries. For example, Jasper’s connected car cloud is used by 11 automotive original equipment manufacturers worldwide, including General Motors, Nissan, Ford Motor Company, Volkswagen and Tesla Motors.

There are many examples of established IoT players such as Cisco acquiring small focused technology companies such as Jasper with modest patent holdings. While the patent landscape suggests that Cisco has significant intellectual property in the client-server area at a high level, Jasper’s unique implementation and market adoption have made it a valuable addition to Cisco’s IoT product offering.

Analytics

Japanese telecommunications and internet corporation Softbank completed its $31 billion takeover of UK-based chip designer ARM Holdings last autumn (Figure 13). The main motivation for this – according to Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son – was “to capture the very significant opportunities provided by the Internet of Things”. Looking at the IP analytics, we found this to be more of a technical play than IP play. Our analysis of the deal presented in an earlier blog posted on October 2016 indicated that of ARM’s 2,300 US and UK patents, fewer than 10% were specific to IoT. We highlight IoT-related assets only in Figure 13 to illustrate this point.

While the Softbank acquisition of ARM significantly increased the portfolio size, only a small proportion of ARM patents apply directly to IoT.

Ones to watch

Gemalto in things

As a company basing its main products on security, Gemalto’s IoT solution comes from various sources. First is the Cinterion Secure Element, a tamper-resistant embedded hardware component which allows devices to securely connect to the network – an integral part of IoT things solutions. Gemalto also has important elements relating to compute/storage, including its enterprise data encryption and cloud security, along with identity management, software monetisation and encryption key management. These areas where Gemalto has developed historically – combined with its jump in things assets – make it an attractive prospect.

Alibaba in compute/storage and analytics

Alibaba is partnering with Gemalto to help secure China’s IoT ecosystem. Gemalto will provide connectivity and security for YunOS, a cloud-based IoT operating system developed by Alibaba. This alliance sits well with Alibaba’s IP assets in IoT compute/storage and analytics.

Splunk in compute/storage

Splunk has announced its integration with ForeScout, whose products help companies to detect IoT devices on their networks. ForeScout entry does not bolster Splunk’s IoT portfolio significantly, but does solidify the security portion of its IoT endpoint and network business. It appears that Splunk had bolstered its intellectual property in IoT compute/storage, which is not its traditional business space.

Arris/Pace in compute/storage

Arris/Pace is much stronger in all areas since merging. The driver behind the move was to put Arris in a stronger position relative to Cisco in the area of video infrastructure. The combined Arris/Pace now dominates the client hardware segments, while still lagging behind Cisco in network hardware and video infrastructure software. Although Pace did not bring a significant number of IP IoT assets to the deal, the combination has resulted in an interesting IoT portfolio in compute/storage.

Tableau in analytics

Given the overall growth in analytics, Tableau presents an interesting opportunity. Although still relatively inactive in pursuing patents, it could be attractive as a technology addition for a company interested in data visualisation and merging information from multiple data sources.

Lifecycle of different IoT markets

Figure 14 shows the current position of each IoT market in its own industry lifecycle. As the duration of each stage and the peak sales level differ for each market, the figure above does not reflect any absolute or relative sales, revenue level or timeline for IoT markets.

Figure 14. 2016 IoT market position on industry lifecycle

The automotive segment has exited the pioneer stage and is now fully in the rapid growth stage. In the automotive segment, embedded sensors and communication modules are leading the growth; while the connected car segment is still early in its development, but with high expectations.

Medical devices are still at the pioneer phase, with substantially high growth rate but low volume. This could be related to the typically longer industry lifecycle in the medical segment.

The smart home segment position has advanced a little towards the maturity growth stage, but it is still experiencing rapid growth. The home automation and management sub-segment is still the exception, with more than 70% year-on-year growth. Platform consolidation will help the growth of the smart home segment.

The health and fitness segment is now fully in the maturity growth rate and marching quickly towards stabilisation. This is reflected in the proliferation of smart fitness products currently on the market.

The industrial segment is the most mature of all IoT segments and is looking as though it will remain so for some time to come.

What can we learn?

Market growth and unit shipment projections are a moving target. This makes it tricky to understand exactly when mass acceptance will be realised and what the journey to get there looks like. Although the forecast for overall unit shipments may have dropped, IoT is still a significant market with keen interest from many big semiconductor and electronics businesses. Companies are actively patenting and looking to strengthen their market position through acquisitions. One area creating significant interest is platforms, which are described as overcrowded by IoT analytics report “IoT 2016 in review: the eight most relevant IoT developments of the year”, which states that at last count there were over 400 different platforms. Platform issues affect speed of adoption and interoperability, and standards in this area have yet to stabilise. Other factors that will affect the overall IoT landscape and that we have not touched on here include security implications and the legal hurdles around divided infringement, claim scope and subject-matter eligibility. It all adds up to continuing interest from companies which are seeking to ensure they are well positioned from a patent and underlying technology standpoint to leverage this dynamic, as yet not fully realised market.

Action plan

In the increasingly interconnected world of the Internet of Things (IoT), rights holders can take a few strategic steps to ensure that they are best positioned for market’s ongoing growth and development:

  • Understand your company’s position in the IoT and be aware of which of the four segments your patents are best suited to.
  • Monitor growth in the key markets, smart home, medical and automotive segments.
  • Monitor the activities of those in adjacent markets or technologies which align with your strategic vision and could have a positive impact on where you wish to be positioned.
  • Map your competition’s patents to better understand their position. Map their patents and patent applications by technology groups and over time understand where they are focusing their innovation efforts.

Ian MacLean is vice president, IP services, Raymond Angers is manager, IP technology solutions and Goran Grbic is IP solutions analyst at TechInsights, Ottawa, Canada

Unlock unlimited access to all IAM content