When most people think about the components of human machine interface (HMI) - smartphone displays, touchscreens and fingerprint scanners – they usually think about Asia, where most people believe smartphone technology is born and bred.
Rick Bergman, president & CEO of Synaptics spoke with WooTrader and explained why the company has been on the leading edge of HMI solutions for more than 30 years.
WooTrader: What exactly does Synaptics do?
Rick Bergman: In essence, the role of Synaptics is to make devices easier to use. To me that’s what Human Machine Interface is.
It’s about we humans interact in a straightforward way with the various smart devices in our lives – whether on a smart phone or in a smart home or in a smart automobile.
What are the main growth areas for Synaptics?
There are actually 3 organic growth areas for this company. One is TDDI. The second is OLED screen and the third is fingerprint.
Can you explain TDDI?
The current market is with what’s called crystal displays or LCDs. About 90% of the market today is LCD screens.
TDDI, which stands for touch display driver integration is for LCD screens. That’s actually a chip we developed to allow LCD screens to be thinner and displays brighter. Synaptics has, by far, the vast majority of TDDI business today.
Where does OLED fit in?
OLED or organic light emitting display enables an even thinner display as well as better colors and longer battery life. The drawback is cost. Today OLED displays are found mostly on high end Samsung smartphones.
We are working on OLED and will be getting our first samples by the end of this year.
What is Synaptics doing in the area of fingerprint scanners?
Today most higher end smartphones have fingerprint readers. On many smartphones with fingerprint, the technology is in a button. One of the big trends is to try to eliminate the bezel area around the display as well as that button.
In other words, edge to edge displays so there is no wasted space. One of the challenges we have is to move that fingerprint reader onto the display.
Synaptics has a long, interesting history. Can you talk about that?
The company’s been around a little more than 30 years. It was co-founded in 1986 by Federico Faggin, a co-inventor of the micro-controller at Intel in 1970 and Carver Mead a famous professor at Cal Tech. I actually used one of Professor Mead’s textbooks when I was in school.
Initially Synaptics was designed to be a neural network company. Some years after its founding, Synaptics developed the world’s first touchpad, which Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPLC) adopted in 1995. The touchpad was how Synaptics built its claim to fame.
After the touchpad came touchscreens. Synaptics worked with a variety of partners to bring touch screen technology into smartphones around 2007. In 2013, we entered the fingerprint market. Then in 2014 we went into what are called display drivers. They are chips that actually drive the display of the smartphone.
How does Synaptics continue to play in the smartphone and display marketplace?
We could argue that we are the only American company that does that now. Our other American peers have exited the market at this juncture.
We employ 100 Ph.D.s. In fact, about 70% of our employees are engineers.
It’s a tough market and it’s our innovation and those Ph.D.’s that help keep us ahead of our Asian competitors.
Is innovation the most important factor that has kept Synaptics going?
I would say it’s two things. Innovation for sure. The smartphone space is frenzied. There’s just this incredible pace of competition and innovation.
The second thing is how we partner with our customers. We are a very trusted partner in terms of working with them on innovation as well as ongoing support, supply and all those things.
You can tell when I rattle off a few of our customer names like Samsung, Apple and so on, it’s important that we have that level of partnership.
How does the partnership work? Does Synaptics come up with ideas or do the partners?
In some ways it’s both, which is kind of a cop out answer. Typically we have conversations with OEMs saying, “Hey this is what we are thinking about two years down the road. What are you thinking? What are your problems?”
We discuss and then we jointly develop solutions. We’re not a custom silicon house where an OEM comes to us and says we need A, B and C. Ours is more a matter of, as I articulated, coming up with a joint idea and then we add our value where appropriate and then they add theirs.