Moving Targets - Embedded.com

Moving Targets

We've been fortunate in the embedded space to have lots of choice when it comes to operating systems. But the future may hold fewer technological alternatives.

So many interesting operating systems and alternatives are available now that it's hard to choose just one. Within the priority-based preemptive category alone, you can choose based on worst-case latency, source code availability, upfront or recurring cost, memory usage, API/features, and numerous other criteria. Indeed, the large range of possible price and feature combinations has fragmented the market into numerous niches.

Many forces will shape the RTOS marketplace going forward. Not the least of these factors is that even more of us will go off-the-shelf in the future. Just within the past five years, the percentage of Embedded Systems Programming subscribers using no OS or a proprietary alternative has fallen from 38% to about 18%.

Competition from “desktop-lite” operating systems has also picked up in the last few years. A large number of embedded designs now look (or can look) an awful lot like a PC inside. These designs benefit from the low component costs in that market and merely dabble in the realm of real-time. What used to be a small ROM-DOS market has morphed into today's WinCE/XP and Linux presence. In 2002, an astonishing 17% of you reported using one of those OSes. I suspect it's not a coincidence that x86-inspired architectures continue to dominate the list of processor choices.

Another force shaping the market is consolidation. Though the pace of consolidation has slowed with the downturn in the business cycle, the effects continue to be felt. Mostly it was the vendors of 32-bit OS solutions that picked up 8- and 16-bit competitors, so they could offer one-stop shopping. An up-and-coming Linux player even spent some of its paper wealth to acquire a commercial RTOS vendor for that same purpose. To compete, Wind River picked up an open source (though non-Linux) OS. When the consolidation resumes, as it surely will, where will it ultimately end?

Several of the companies positioned to profit from these trends are not what we traditionally think of as “embedded” vendors. For example, Microsoft, which—love 'em or hate 'em—correctly understands they must make it in the embedded space to stay relevant in coming decades, is trying hard to find the right combination of OS features and vertical markets. I'm certain they will eventually find their way.

Other companies, including QNX, LynuxWorks, and TimeSys are already well established in our space but trying to leverage Linux. It remains to be seen if an open technology can bring these companies the success they hope for and, if so, how the traditional RTOS will evolve.

Thus far, we've been fortunate in the embedded space to have lots of choice when it comes to operating systems. But the future may hold fewer technological alternatives. It's not clear to me that today's commercial RTOSes are distinguishable from each other in the executive boardroom—or that the many small players have enough to gain by staying in the business for the longer term.

What do you think?

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