Apple snaps up wireless chip-maker to beef up Bluetooth

Like celebrity deaths, Apple acquisitions seem to come in clumps. Last month the company acquired two mapping-related companies, Locationary and HopStop; on Thursday, Cupertino mixed it up by snagging a maker of low-energy computer chips, Passif Semiconductor. News of the deal was first reported and confirmed by former Wall Street Journal writer Jessica Lessin.

As usual, Apple was closemouthed about its reasons for the acquisition, but it’s not hard to figure out why it picked up the small Silicon Valley-based company, which was founded by a pair of Ph.D. students from the University of California, Berkeley. Clearly, though, Apple has deemed it increasingly important to control the key technologies that go into its products—case in point, its 2008 acquisition of PA Semi, which enabled Apple to develop its own processors for products like the iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV.

Along with processors, wireless technology is the other key area on which Apple has focused; just look at its attempts to simplify and cut down on the number of wires for its devices using technologies like AirPlay, and its early adoption of Wi-Fi. More recently, there have been reports that users may soon be able to use Bluetooth to configure their Apple TV. And former senior vice president Bob Mansfield, who was recently detailed to work on special projects for Tim Cook, was last year put in charge of a Technologies division working specifically on semiconductors and wireless.

That connectivity between devices is only going to become more important with the rise of Bluetooth LE (low energy), the part of the Bluetooth 4.0 standard that’s targeted at low-power devices like those used for fitness, security, and healthcare. Even if you set aside long-running rumors of Apple’s foray into wearable computing, having a stake in this technology is important for the company’s existing mobile products, which, more and more, are interacting with smartwatches, fitness devices, and the like. The forthcoming iOS 7 bears this out: It’s due to include a technology called iBeacons, which allows devices to collect data such as location via Bluetooth LE.

The low-energy part of the spec is particularly important, since anybody who’s used almost any Bluetooth accessory with their iPhone can attest to its effect on bottom-line battery life. Apple, like any other company in the mobile device market, is always trying to wring more longevity out of its products; lately, that’s been in the form of more and more intelligence power management. With control over both the hardware and the software, Apple has the potential to squeeze even more performance optimizations out of these types of application.

And there is, of course, the aforementioned mythical smartwatch. A power-efficient Bluetooth LE chip would be of primary importance to such a device, where battery life is at a premium. (Right now, for example, I’ve got two wearable devices, a Fitbit Flex and a Pebble, each of which lasts about a week between recharges—to me, that’s the bare minimum for a device that you’re going to use every day.)

Passif’s acquisition may not be the last for Apple in the near term; CEO Tim Cook said at the D11 conference in May, before news of the location-related acquisitions came to light, that the company had already acquired nine companies in 2013, and that it was still shopping for talent. Let’s just hope it’s getting the bulk-pricing deal.

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