Connectors for Next-Gen Electronics

By John MacWilliams | February 03, 2014

CES 2014 Forecasts Trends in Connectors for Next-Gen Electronics

This year’s CES gave us a sneak preview of the major drivers and trends that will impact the way we design connectors and the products those connectors will enable.

Image by jnaj

Image by jnaj

Ultramobile Device Technology

Ultramobile devices were everywhere at CES, and most featured fewer discrete connectors and more Bluetooth and WiFi. Ultraminiature connectors are being used, but they need to be an order of magnitude smaller than most existing devices. This will occur to the extent that multivendor subsystems need to be connected in final assembly. I/O connectors will be limited to microUSB and HDMI with chip-level wireless interconnects using Bluetooth, WiFi, and NFC. MicroSD and SIM card slots are popular.

Demise of the Desktop PC

One thing is certain: The PC-AT/tower and its modular motherboard design are in decline. Once the major connector market in PCs, the tower has begun to fall and is expected, by our forecasts, to drop up to 50% in volume from 2011 over the next five to seven years. Partially replacing it will be the all-in-one design and now touch-enabled PCs with Windows 8 and, of course, iMacs. Most of the connector applications will remain in AIOs, but in a more space-constrained package. There will be mixed results for memory and processor sockets. Some will be replaced by direct-attach logic boards. SATA will remain but could see competition from faster small form-factor designs as SSD takes off. DDR3 will trend toward DDR4 late this year. I/O ports will remain, such as USB 3.0 with HDMI growing. The LCD interconnect application will remain and be more advanced with high-res displays, as will PCIe and many other PC connector applications.

The Rise of Laptops and Tablets

Laptops will experience renewed growth if you consider all the new configurations on the market. We anticipate better than the flat-to-down experience of the past year or so, but not the year-to-year double-digit increases of the past. Reason: The iPad/tablet craze, which is strong in the consumer market, is impacting the traditional laptop PC market — even MacBooks are impacted. Laptops have been a key application for connectors and high-volume consumer demand drove this key market over the past decade. Some additional growth can be expected from the new Ultrabook design, which will moderate in price and morph into the future laptop market. Overall, tablet growth will slow from triple to double digits as that technology begins to mature. In most instances the number of connectors per system, including CPU and memory sockets and IO connectors, is decreasing as legacy connectors are eliminated and wireless interconnects becomes the norm. However, overall connector use should increase, due to the vast expansion in the number of mobile devices.

From Smartphones to Phablets

Development of smartphones with seven to 14 or more connectors per system will continue to grow, surpassing cell phone volumes and exceeding one billion units per year. FPC is a smartphone application, as are very small PCB stacking connectors, SD and SIM card slots, and micro-USB. The Samsung Galaxy Note and other “phablets” with 5″ to 7″ LCDs, verging on tablet designs, are on the increase, and a larger Apple iPhone screen is expected to debut later this year.

Cloud Computing for Storage, Backup, and Apps

Cloud computing is coming of age. The future of PCs, tablets, and smartphones will be heavily interlaced with cloud applications, and the complexity of local systems may decline as more applications reside in the cloud. Even servers, an important connector market, will be affected. The cloud is a transformative/disruptive innovation that threatens many vested interests, including the need for local software and applications. Key players will include Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon, Verizon, AT&T, and others. Some unknowns are quietly lurking in the background, planning massive storage farms. A ubiquitous cloud is particularly attractive for consumers because it is a form of artificial intelligence. You don’t have to be a computer expert to use it because it is always there and can be a boon to storage, backup, and applications.

Connected Devices for Home Entertainment

The more logical trend in TV is WiFi and the looming battle over WebTV versus cable. Will the two merge under the umbrellas of Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, etc., or will an à la carte offering come from elsewhere — over the Internet? From Apple? There is a potential run by Intel into the set-top box business, featuring Internet access, WiFi hotspots, and à la carte programming. Apple has not yet announced a new Apple TV, which could be in this vein. The biggest issue here will be the ability to get and deliver programming around (or through) the quasi-monopoly of the cable TV giants. We assume the latter will win because they own the pipe and a lot of programming. Overall, the connector market here should grow, although downsizing in I/O ports is occurring.

Other Products That Affect Connector Technologies

Connector companies, to the extent they participate in consumer electronics, should remain alert to other new products, applications, and startup companies. This includes the future of cloud computing, which is the next major transformative happening in the consumer electronics and computer industries. Will innovation come from “Wintel” (Intel and Microsoft), from Apple, from newly private Dell, or from an unexpected player from outside the mainstream?

Connector use is pretty much hidden behind all the product hype at CES. We’ve tried to hit some of those hidden highlights here.

John MacWilliams, Market Director, Bishop & Associates, Inc.

John MacWilliams
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