FTDI’s Route To Android
The best thing about Electronica was meeting FTDI’s founder and CEO Fred Dart – who you all know as a knowledgeable commenter on these pages. He told me this engrossing yarn.
He caught the entrepreneurial bug in California, designing PC motherboards.
Inspired by Californian oomph he returned to his native Scotland and designed PC motherboards for Asian companies.
“Then the PC industry changed and, instead of designing with PALs, Chips and Technologies were integrating a PC onto four or five packages,” recalls Fred, “and we either had to do something new, or we had to compete.”
He did something new – designing chips. He did one for UMC in its pre-foundry days and then started thinking: “We’re designing chips for other people, why don’t we design one for ourselves? That’s when we started FTDI – 20 years ago.”
Future Technology Devices International was set up to be a PC chip-set company. “We knew how to do this in discrete logic and we integrated that,” recounts Fred, “then a strange thing happened – IBM started using our chip-set.”
IBM had set up a clone manufacturer of its own and FTDI replaced VLSI Technologies as its chip-set supplier. This gave FTDI kudos.
“I offered customers my IBM chip-set,” says Fred, “that gave us an edge.”
That was good business for three or four years and then the market changed again.
“When Intel introduced Pentium it introduced a chip-set at the same time which gave us no chance to catch up,” recalls Fred, “I took a momentous decision.”
“We had a lot of PC knowledge. Inside the box is tough – the components change every few months – so we looked at peripherals. Then USB was announced, and we thought the peripherals will need chips for USB. So we decided to do USB chips.”
What made him think he could make a USB chip as good as or better than anyone in the world?
“We’re good technologists,” replies Fred, adding, with that dry, under-played Scottish humour, “when we put our minds to it we can learn.”
When FTDI had a prototype design, they went to an Intel compliance workshop and out of that came an invitation to Microsoft in Redmond for a week. The purpose in going to Redmond was to get keyboards working with USB.
“We had the technology in FPGA but it took us too long to get it into silicon,” says Fred, “by the time we had an IC for the keyboard and joy stick, others had come in to eat my lunch and my dinner.”
“A sub-contractor let us down badly. It was very frustrating and the money was running out fast.”
At the same time he was doing an IC for a USB hub which consisted of USB sockets and a serial port.
“We got it into production but then we noticed a funny thing – people were buying the hub but not using the hub function – they were just using the serial port. What people valued was the USB-to-serial connection.”
“So we went into the USB-to-serial, USB-to-FIFO market,” he recalls, “our ‘Series A’ was a USB-to-UART and a USB-to-FIFO.”
“Then,” says Fred, “things started to go right.”
He had been down to borrowing on his credit cards to keep afloat. At that point he stood down from engineering and went into marketing.
“Some of our competitors were big companies and they were telling customers that FTDI would not survive,” recounts Fred, “we lost a few customers but we stayed around and quite a few people came back.”
“We did more than just the silicon, we were supplying the drivers for Windows, Mac and Linux and maintained them through the new releases.”
In 2002 came FTDI’s ‘B’ series – the same functions as the A Series but more integrated.
At that stage FTDI consisted of five people.
Then it moved into new areas. “It takes time,” says Fred, “it takes three years from concept to revenue.”
A new area is Android. Android mobile devices need connecting to outside equipment – and the FTDI311D connects an Android device to peripheral hardware over USB via Android’s open accessory mode.
The opportunities are speeding up and so is FTDI. Today it has 105 people.
” In the early days we did one new chip a year or every 18 months,” says Fred, “but we’ve been building up our engineering team and are putting chips down the pipe at the rate of three a year.”
He didn’t have to be a marketing man for long. “Finally I was able to delegate the marketing role, which had never figured on my career plan, but I enjoyed the challenge nevertheless,” says Fred, “today, I’m back at the helm in my engineering capacity, defining future product and technology directions for the company- a role that personally gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
This was my 17th Electronica but the first time I’ve left a stand with my spirits well and truly lifted.