Dawn of an era: Embedded Systems Programming and ESC

One day in late 1987, Computer Language magazine editor JD Hildebrand walked up and down the halls of the Miller Freeman publishing company with a gleam in his eye, saying that we needed to launch a newsletter on embedded programming. JD had been convinced by some of the compiler guys at Intel that embedded programming was different–very different–from traditional software development and no one else “got it.”

I knew these Intel guys because I'd been trying to sell them ads for years into various magazines. They continually explained how cross compilers were different and, without the modern aid of resources like Wikipedia, I just nodded and walked away shaking my head, also not getting it.

Over the previous few year, I had collected a series of advertisements talking about debugging, emulation, and microprocessor-based development that used terms like real-time and firmware. I didn't know what they meant, but I maintained folder full of them for the day when I would understand and maybe one day start a magazine on the topic (I had many such folders).

Hearing JD's description, I ran out into the hall with my file bursting with ads and said, “forget the newsletter, let's start a magazine!”

It took a few months to do the research and a few more to explain to the Miller Freeman executives what an embedded system was, but we finally got approval. We had spent a lot of time thinking about the publication's name because we suspected that we would be defining the market. We decided that the more modern term “embedded systems” made more sense than firmware or real-time systems, and we attached the word “programming” to definitively mark this as a software magazine. No capacitors!

With the blessing of our software development magazine guru PJ Plauger, JD pulled together the columns and design and I went about selling the ads for the first issue.

We didn't know what to expect and we boldly projected 30 ad pages. But unbeknownst to me, there was a large and rabidly competitive market for in-circuit emulators and those vendors came roaring into the first issue. We closed the ad sales for that issue at 41.4 ad pages.

The magazine had truly struck a chord and circulation, which started at 25,000, began to rise almost immediately.

In the Fall of 1988, our team attended the Wescon show, which was beginning its long slow decline. Seeing the absence of any software, JD and I typed out a business plan on a Tandy 100 for the first Embedded Systems Conference. The only issue we tussled over was the name. JD thought it should be ROMDEX!

To get approval I had to guarantee that we would have at least 150 people show up and I told management that, if necessary, I would personally call people to make sure we hit that number. We got the approval.

Our first conference brochure was eight pages, black-and-white, and truly low budget; but we got about 325 people to come to the event at the tiny Sir Frances Drake Hotel in San Francisco and sold out the small show floor. Wind River, even then trying to make it's own unique splash, had its own room filled with examples of embedded systems, all running VRTX.

I had managed to secure Andrew Grove as a keynote speaker and as I met him before the talk, he told me he was nervous! I asked why and he said that he had given hundreds of talks on Intel's microprocessor/PC business, but this would be the first keynote he ever did on embedded systems. It may have been the only speech on embedded he ever gave! But he did fine and then PJ Plauger spoke to the audience's true needs while wearing a very elegant wizard's cape with a large wooden staff.

The moment I knew we had found something special came at the party following the keynote. An attendee from Minnesota, who working in a disc drive manufacturing division of IBM, told me he had been to Comdex, and many other software and electronics conferences but, he said, “this was the first one where I don't feel like a freak.”

Even though it's been ten years since I was involved directly with Embedded Systems Programming (since renamed to Embedded Systems Design ) and ESC, I still subscribe to the magazine and still get to the occasional conference to see “my baby.”

Ted Bahr is the co-founder and served as publisher of Embedded Systems Programming magazine and director of the Embedded Systems Conferences for the first 8 years of their lives. He left Miller Freeman to start BZ Media, which publishes SD Times, Software Test & Performance, and Systems Management News. Bahr can be reached at .

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