Contributing Editor, MEMS Investor Journal
Three months ago you heard my prediction here that the iPhone would be getting a gyroscope soon, and last month the prophesy was fulfilled. Since then, even deeper reasons have emerged to be bullish on gyros. And mark your calendars with my new prediction: a new iPad model with a gyroscope will debut by 2011, propelling gyros into the next MEMS mass-market commodity.
Ink-jet printheads garner the greatest MEMS market share each year mainly because they are disposable like razor blades, but pressure sensors were the first commodity MEMS followed by accelerometers. Accelerometers got their mass-market start when they were proven to be superior to the mercury switches, rolamite and ball-in-tube inertial sensors used in early airbags. Once engineers clearly understood that MEMS accelerometers could outperform those conventional triggers, the automobile industry switched virtually overnight. And their skyrocketing sales drove down their prices sharply as the semiconductor economy of scales made them increasingly less expensive to manufacture.
That scenario is being repeated now with gyroscopes, which are already used in gaming controllers, to stabilize images for digital cameras and to detect automobile rollovers – but which are also currently being designed into every smartphone trying to keep up with Apple's iPhone 4. Recent teardowns have revealed that the iPhone 4 uses a three-axis gyroscope manufactured by STMicroelectronics, and within a month Apple's App Store had nearly 50 applications using it. By this time next year, all 500 current apps using accelerometers will likely be upgraded to take advantage of the gyro plus hundreds more will be added that were not possible without a gyroscope.
According to iSuppli, smartphones alone are adding nearly a billion dollars to the total MEMS market, which will enjoy a compound annual growth of 25 percent for the foreseeable future. The reason is that every smartphone maker has followed the iPhone by adding an accelerometer – a pattern that is being repeated with the gyroscope. By copying the iPhone's adoption of the gyroscope, other smartphone makers hope to persuade developers to port over those apps created for the Apple App Store. The Android platform in particular, is intent on matching Apple's app-store experience, but cannot do so without the same sensor components.
Sandia National Labs "vibratory" gyroscope was fabricated in a MEMS-fiirst process, thus allowing the CMOS electronics to be fabricated on the same die.
According to current predictions, gyroscopes will be embedded in all smartphones by 2011 and will likely be in the majority of the rest of the billion unit cell phone market by 2015. Look for gyro-enabled models soon from Blackberry, HTC, Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and ST-Ericsson. But this in only the beginning, because Apple's wildly popular iPad will also include a gyroscope in its next model, forcing every major consumer electronics maker to follow suit with their competing touchscreen tablets by 2011.
UBM Techinsights recently uncovered a secret gyroscope socket on the current iPad that is unpopulated (empty) in the current version of the device. The 24-pin socket matches the pin-out of Invensense's three-axis gyroscope, which leads UBM to the “round-about” conclusion that the next-generation iPad will include a STMicroelectronics gyroscope which has a 16-pin package. If Occam's razor is applied to their logic, then an Invensense gyro will be included in the next release of the iPad, but only time will tell which MEMS chip Apple ultimately chooses.
The sure bet is that soon – perhaps by Christmas – Apple's iPad will have a gyroscope, permitting its users to take advantage of the hundreds of iPhone gyroscope-enabled apps in the Apple App Store. The equally sure bet is that every touchscreen tablet maker – from Sony to Hewlett Packard to Dell – will be forced to follow suit by adding a gyroscope too (so that Android users can take advantage of those gyroscope apps currently being ported over from the iPhone).
While sales of PCs are falling off a cliff, they have no need for a gyroscope. And while sales of iPhones, iPads and their clones skyrocket, touchscreen tablets will virtually pioneer a massive new consumer electronics market where every major consumer electronics maker will be buying MEMS gyroscopes, thus propelling their sales to the billion unit mark by the end of the decade.
Copyright 2010 MEMS Investor Journal, Inc.