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30 July 2020

Synaptics snaps up DisplayLink for video compression IP

Most readers are only going to recognize the name Synaptics if they have had to go digging around in their laptop’s driver options, to fix a rogue trackpad issue. After all, the human-machine interface (HMI) specialist has very little reason to crop up in video discussions. But this week, Synaptics has acquired DisplayLink for $305 million cash, specifically for the firm’s video compression technology.

This is the second deal this month for Synaptics, which also bought Broadcom’s wireless IoT assets for $250 million. That one is decidedly less up Faultline’s street, but DisplayLink is intriguing. Synaptics cites the growing demand for casting video between devices as a driver, and so it has whipped out its wallet.

DisplayLink designs chips and software for universal docking stations, mainly aimed at laptops and tablets. The plan is to integrate the new data compression IP with Synaptics’ SyNAP family of SoCs, bolstered by the new wireless IoT chips and supporting code, to create a product that Synaptics can hawk to anyone in the market for voice, audio, computer vision, machine learning, and security devices.

Of course, the current market for those sorts of devices is a bit limited among CSPs. We have long predicted that smart home services will eventually become significant components of the service offering, as a very sticky quad or quint play option. However, CSPs are collectively very slow on the uptake, in this case, and so for the likes of Synaptics, there is still plenty of time to get their ducks in a row.

One particular element that often goes under the radar in these discussions is the amount of video that will be generated and potentially uploaded by a new generation of smart home cameras. If bundled into a service offering, likely as a home security package, then even a handful of cameras could significantly tax the current ‘normal’ uplink from a typical broadband home. Rolled out at scale across a customer base, and this represents a significant risk to the operator.

This is where the DisplayLink data compression technology will come into play, but the machine vision capabilities that are being talked up in this SyNAP SoC are another factor. After all, if the devices themselves can determine whether this particular video clip actually needs to be uploaded to the cloud, for safekeeping, then the operator can significantly reduce its uplink workload.

A prime example is facial recognition, so that a camera pointed towards a front driveway or path would be able to distinguish between a family member or friend arriving, versus a stranger. In a similar vein, on-device or at least in-home audio recognition helps cut down on the recordings that need to be uploaded to the cloud for processing.

So, Synaptics does seem to be lining up to make an appearance in the next generation of CPE. Given the eventual death of the set top, and the transition to the WiFi devices being the main operator presence, it seems likely that there is a role in the thin-client void that would be left by legacy set tops – and that is where the casting expertise becomes particularly handy.

Notably, it has developed its own Android-based set top, with CEO Michael Hurlston saying, “We can use it with OTT streaming. With wireless docking and wireless casting, you take video off a phone or a PC and throw it on a TV. That’s where we see the use cases.”

Currently, despite both competing in the docking station market, Synaptics and DisplayLink share very few customers, thanks to the former favoring commercial channels, with the latter in retail. This is going to create an immediately accretive deal, says Synaptics, serving the likes of Dell, HP, and Lenovo – supporting Windows, Linux, MacOS, and specifically ChromeOS too, across a range of connectivity mediums.

DisplayLink’s IP seems to be significantly better than Synaptics, to the tune of a claimed 96 Gbps throughput, compared to Synaptics’ 26 Gbps. This is due to its ‘dynamic compression’ capability, which should come into play with the wireless casting applications it sees becoming more important over time. This should allow Synaptics to cater four quad-screen 4K setups, as well as single 8K or 10K panels too, as well as fit better quality video down legacy connections like USB.

It will likely be a difficult transition from enterprise sales into the operator game, given the incumbent competition and the low amount of overlap between the two markets. This is more a bet on future needs, rather than an attempt for an outsider to ram a fairly uninspiring new set top – that it can demonstrate its ability to outperform the incumbent CPE providers in these next-gen applications.

With the rise of Android TV, in both set tops and smart TVs, casting is going to become a feature that many pay TV customers are going to expect their CPE to support. Given Google’s progenitor role in video casting, we expect the feature to be tightly woven into Android TV, over time. This is what Synaptics is chasing.