By virtually all accounts, the future of computing lies in the overlapping space between the Internet and embedded. As embedded system developers, we find ourselves right in the middle of this crowded intersection. Without us, there could neither be people trading stocks from their cellphones today nor speculation about a tomorrow-world with hundreds or thousands of smart devices per human inhabitant. Yet somehow, embedded systems have never caught the full attention and imagination of those outside our community.
Some long-overdue attention is finally coming our way. A recent issue of Communications of the ACM focused specifically on the topic of networked embedded systems (“Embedding the Internet,” May 2000). One author, David Tennenhouse, stated that “the computer science research community now enjoys a rare and exciting opportunity to redefine its [40 year old] agenda and establish new goals that will propel society beyond interactive computing…to increased human productivity and quality of life.”
It seems computer science researchers are beginning to realize that further research into one-on-one human-computer interaction will produce diminishing returns. The most complicated problems we'll face tomorrow are related to the management of arrays of networked embedded devices. To be useful to human communities, such systems must eventually manage their own networks and data and make a variety of decisions automatically.
Consumers and Wall Street are also beginning to notice embedded systems a bit more these days. Again, the attention is focused most heavily on networked devices. Within the past year, several mainstream publications have run cover stories showcasing future uses of embedded technology in the home. However, the excitement in the consumer space centers primarily on new capabilities for home appliances we already know and love — microwaves that read UPC codes from packaging and use that information to download cooking instructions, for example.
Wall Street's limited attention to our space has been largely misguided. To date, the largest “embedded plays” have been the Linux-related IPOs. But those aren't the folks who really stand to gain from the current explosion of uses for embedded CPUs. No organization would build any commercial product if they thought the cost of developing it would rival or exceed the profits on the sales of the thing. So it remains the case that the folks who will really profit in the long term will be the ones making the proverbial “nickel for every unit sold.” The biggest money is still very much in the processors and peripherals (whether silicon or IP) and in those software components that produce royalties. Services will always play second fiddle.
Myself, I'm looking forward to this month's Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose. There may not be as much glitz there as on Wall Street nor as much gadgetry as at the Consumer Electronics Show, but there will certainly be a lot more substance. And I'm proud to announce that this is by far the biggest issue of ESP ever. I'm glad to see our industry is finally getting some of the public attention it deserves. But it is only from substance and hard work that ubiquitous computing might eventually be born.