Electronica: FTDI goes Android

Android mobile devices need connecting to outside equipment – and the FTDI311D chip connects an Android device to peripheral hardware over USB via Android’s open accessory mode.

The move from FTDI’s traditional business of doing USB-to-UART and USB-to-FIFO chips has taken a few years

“It takes time,” Fred Dart, founder and CEO of FTDI, told EW, “it takes three years from concept to revenue.”

The Android opportunity has been a boost for FTDI. “In the early days we did one new chip a year or every 18 months,” said Dart, “but we’ve been building up our engineering team and are putting chips down the pipe at the rate of three a year.”

Dart’s background is in PCs – he founded PC motherboard design start-ups in both California and Scotland.

“Then the PC industry changed and, instead of designing with PALs, Chips and Technologies were integrating a PC onto four or five packages,” recalled Dart, “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? We knew how to do this in discrete logic and we integrated that. 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. “I offered customers my IBM chip-set,” says Dart, “that gave us an edge.” It 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,” recalled Dart, “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.”

Asked why he thought he could make a better USB chip than anyone else, Dart replied “We’re good technologists,” 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 – a sub-contractor let us down badly,” recalled Dart, “by the time we had an IC for the keyboard and joy stick, others had come in to eat my lunch and my dinner.”

At the same time as the keyboard USB chip, he was doing a chip 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,” said Dart, “so we went into the USB-to-serial, USB-to-FIFO market. Our ‘Series A’ was a USB-to-UART and a USB-to-FIFO.”

“Then,” said Dart, “things started to go right.”

At that stage, 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,” recalled Dart, “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.”

USB was the lift-off point for FTDI, now, with the move to Android, Dart has reinvented his business once again.

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