Marvell Plugs a Computer for Telcos, MSOs
The company claims to have the devices in trials with service providers, running services like home automation or security monitoring. "By the end of the year, they will decide whether to roll out," says Bob Salem, director of marketing for Marvell's enterprise business unit.
Conceivably, plug computers could also play a role in bringing Internet video to the TV through a set-top box. But that's one of many, many ideas still on the "maybe" list.
The plug computer is literally a computer: a server shrunk down to plug directly into an electrical socket. It packs a 1.2GHz or faster processor, draws only 5W of power, and generates so little heat that it doesn't need a fan. Marvell introduced the devices at CES in 2009, and in two subsequent upgrades it's added a hard disk drive, WiFi, and Bluetooth.
The things can be used for anything -- they're computers, after all. But because they've got network connectivity and can sit unobtrusively in the home, Marvell has its eye on cable and telco services. Plug computers cost $99 at most, so they could become a delivery vehicle for new applications or higher levels of service -- a set-top adjunct, possibly.
"It's cheaper than rolling out a set-top box that costs 300 bucks," Salem says.
The plug computer launched in February 2009 but had gotten private showings at CES a month earlier. Salem, who came to Marvell out of the optical networking side of Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM), claims it got operators' attention right away. "We had service providers coming to meet with us for four days straight," he boasts.
How much business comes from that is yet to be seen, but Marvell can at least name-drop Verizon Wireless . In January, the carrier announced an LTE-based home security device, developed by Philippine manufacturer Ionics EMS.
It's nice that Marvell is in "quite a few" other trials, as Salem says, but because the plug computer is so inexpensive, getting into a field trial isn't so grand a feat. The things don't require the heavy lab qualifications of routers or WDM boxes.
Marvell revels in this, in a sense. Inside its Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters -- the former 3Com building, where the gargantuan lobby sports a fish tank worthy of a Vegas hotel -- is a small lab devoted to demos of the plug computer's applications. Marvell has shipped more than 10,000 development kits, and the lab shows off ideas that equipment designers and software companies have come up with, in areas such as remote medical monitoring and point-of-sale gizmos.
And yes, there are TVs, doing IPTV-like things without the IPTV service. One application developed by WebTView Ltd. would bring Internet video to tech neophytes; it does Internet searches that are then navigable via the TV remote. The TV could also receive photos over the Web, maybe flashing a "new pictures" button if someone has posted shots of the grandkids since the last time the TV was turned on.
The possibilities for video are interesting. While the plug computer could be an aid to the set-top world, it's also got potential alongside home gateways or any other devices that could supplant the set-top.
"The set-top box people will have to determine what their role is. We are giving horsepower to their box, but of course, at the same time, we are giving horsepower to computers," Salem says.
Could the plug computer go one step further, and become part of the "death of the set-top" story? 2Wire Inc. , a company that loves to talk about that topic, doesn't see it. Whatever replaces the set-top would have to handle video rendering and decoding; and Jaime Fink, 2Wire vice president of technology and strategy, doesn't see plug computers being up for the task.
"We're seeing that product positioned as an application control point," Fink says. "We're seeing a lot of home-networking application developers using the SheevaPlug [Marvell's brand name for the plug computer] as a development platform."
— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading