Better living through electronics - Embedded.com

Better living through electronics

Technology to the People! The consumer market is as strong as ever. Home electronics, and particularly entertainment electronics, always sell strongly. It's an area where each advancement is obvious and each new product finds a willing audience.

Shout the word “microprocessor” in a crowded theater and most people will think, “personal computer.” Even though PCs account for only about 2% of all the microprocessors made and sold, they dominate the popular imagination. Mention computer technology and most people think of, well, computers. We make fun of the 1960s-era pundits who said the total world market for computers would only be a few dozen units—after all, how many weather-prediction or missile-trajectory machines do you need?

They were more accurate than we like to admit. We don't need a lot of computers in that sense, but we sure do like to reapply the technology that goes into them. It's amazing that 32-bit computers with megabytes of memory and their own multitasking operating systems have gone from being laboratory curiosities to being toys, all within living memory. We find digital watches more accurate than the finest mechanical timepiece at the bottom of a cereal box—and throw them away because we've already got three more sitting in a drawer.

I figure the average middle-class American household has 40 to 50 microprocessors in it, not counting the dozen or so chips per car. Consumers aren't even aware of most of them, which is partly the point. Embedded computers are by nature invisible, or at least unrecognizable as computers. They're so cheap they've even replaced inanimate solid objects: thermostats use 8-bit processors in place of bimetallic strips to sense temperature. Silicon and software have replaced base metals. Ain't technology grand?

Where this technology is apparent is in the living room. No one would mistake their DVD player for a mechanical device, and 42-inch plasma screens aren't easily confused with glass cathode-ray tubes. Video game consoles pack more processing punch than NASA's lunar landers. Now we've successfully harnessed that space-shot technology and tamed it for everyday use. It's a misconception that Teflon was developed for the space program (it was around long before that) but the semiconductor and computer technology developed in that era have sure found their way into our homes.

In good economic times and bad, we like to have our toys. The world only needs so many computers; even the PC market has just about leveled off. But home electronics, and particularly entertainment electronics, always sell strongly. It's an area where each advancement is obvious and each new product finds a willing audience. It's the payoff for all that early research and a lot more interesting than predicting the weather.

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