Apple Buys Low-Power Chip Maker Passif

The company may be aiming Passi’s low-power chip technology for such wearable computing devices like the reported iWatch.

Apple, which is among a growing number of tech vendors moving into the increasingly competitive field of wearable technology, reportedly took another step in that direction when it bought Passif Semiconductor, which builds low-power communications chips.

News of Apple’s acquisition came from former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin, who said the company had bought Passif “in recent months.” No financial terms have been disclosed, and an Apple spokesperson, while confirming the acquisition, said that the company buys small companies “from time to time” and would not discuss what Apple’s plans for the Passif technology may be.

Speculation has centered around not only smartphones but also wearable technology, which is generating interest from a growing number of vendors, including Google, Samsung and Microsoft. Dell and Intel officials also have expressed interest in the burgeoning market.

Apple reportedly is working on a computing device that can be worn on the wrist, a product that industry observers have dubbed the iWatch and that could include health and fitness features. For its part, Google is pushing forward with its Google Glass headset, which lets users access the Internet and, with a voice command, take photos, pose Google questions and send and receive messages. The search giant has been slowly releasing the Google Glass headset into the public.

In such devices—which are small and require long battery life—having a chip that consumes low amounts of power and takes up little space is critical. Passif’s technology reportedly fits the bill, and includes a radio based on Bluetooth LE, a low-power version of the wireless technology.

Apple reportedly tried to buy Passif a few years ago for a price in the mid-tens-of-millions of dollars. Sources told Lessin that the price Apple paid now presumably was higher. Venture capital firm Khosla Ventures in 2008 announced it had invested $1.6 million in the company.

Juniper Research analysts expect shipments of wearable computing devices to grow tenfold by 2018, to 150 million units. In a report July 31, the analysts said that devices for the fitness and health industries will account for more than half of the units shipped over the next five years, with smart watches and smart glasses driving adoption toward the latter part of the forecast period.

"The actual take-up of CE [consumer electronics] smart wireless accessories will depend on whether companies succeed in creating accessories that will capture the imagination of the consumer," said Nitin Bhas, author of Juniper’s "Smart Wireless Accessories" report. "Nevertheless, the multiplicity of potential use cases means that the consumer electronics category represents one of the most important areas in which smart wireless accessories will develop."

To date, the wearable computing market has been dominated by smaller vendors, like Pebble and its smart watch, Fitbit’s Flex wrist band and Vuzix’s Wrap 1200AR Google Glass-like headset. Nike also has a wrist device—the FuelBand—aimed at collecting a user’s health and fitness data.

Samsung, like rival Apple, also reportedly is looking to developing a smart watch. Officials with Dell, who are looking to expand the company’s reach to reduce its reliance on the contracting PC market, see wearable computing devices as a possible growth area. Meanwhile, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich has been using a Google Glass headset, and said he expects more wearable devices for the eyes, ears and wrists to roll out. Krzanich wants to make sure that Intel technology powers as many of those devices as possible.