Networked Appliances? Phooey! - Embedded.com

Networked Appliances? Phooey!

Thom Calandra interviewed Jerry Fiddler, one of the founders and still leading light of Wind River Systems. One extract: “Fiddler's goal is to pave the way for the development of a deluge of smart devices, contraptions like Internet-enabled ovens and video recorders that can be programmed from long distances.”

I can parse this sentence a couple of ways. One makes much sense to me: Wind River, like all of the rest of us, is helping flood the world with massive numbers of smart systems. This, after all, is the very nature of embedded systems.

Or, perhaps Mr. Fiddler feels the future of our industry lies in net-centric devices. He's surely not alone in suggesting this; at the latest Embedded Systems Conference the show floor was fairly packed with vendors promoting connectivity solutions for embedded systems.

Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, didn't the dot-com meltdown show that the Internet is not the only business segment extant? I agree absolutely that a lot of our products will, for better or worse, have protocol stacks stuffed into them. But do I really want a refrigerator that checks the 'Net to flag health hazards of the instant meal I've just taken from the freezer section? Will an Internet-connected toaster improve either my toast or my life?

Some, maybe most, embedded systems are best left as isolated, communications-free controllers. While I do agree that Mr. Fiddler's vision has a lot of merit, I think the real future of our industry is an ever-decreasing visibility of microprocessing. When our curtains contain ten thousand processors monitoring sunshine and adjusting light levels appropriately, when every button in your phone is smart, when even a light bulb dynamically retunes its operation for greater efficiency, then the era of ubiquitous embedded systems will begin.

Let's remember that even where networking is desirable, it's pretty much impossible today and for many years to come. Sure, tossing a TCP/IP stack, Ethernet hardware, and the like into our products is doable and even getting easy. But how are you gonna connect that system to the net? Where's the T1 line, the phone wires, the wireless infrastructure? When an embedded system costs pennies-or less-who wants to run what will probably always be an expensive net connection to the gizmo, especially in those numerous cases where the customer benefit is dubious?

Some claim wireless is the answer. No way. Embedded systems must be reliable. The one massively deployed wireless network-cell phones-has rampant disconnects and other tribulations. When I urgently need access to the toaster, there's no way I'll tolerate “network errors”.

Hey, I can't even get a net connection into my home, at least recently. When I moved one slip down the dock (okay, okay, I live on a boat), my phone company, Verizon, moved the phone lines but screwed up the DSL connection. Worse, they can't call the repair department to have things fixed; they have to send a letter. Not an email, but a real physical letter (remember those?). It's been three weeks and they're predicting another three to go due to the sluggishness of snail mail. I can't knock Verizon too much; they do call, sometimes two or three times a day, to let me know the progress (none). For some reason the DSL line was always perfect but the same wires are totally unreliable for a modem hookup, so I'm sneaking around the docks, laptop in hand, furtively looking for better phone jacks.

Somehow I don't think we're ready for a net-centric embedded universe. Till connections are totally reliable, nearly free, and persuasive, I'll bet the future of this industry still lies largely in isolated computers doing their thing quietly.

Mr. Fiddler did get one important point right, though. He was quoted as saying, “When the phonograph came out, (Thomas) Edison thought it would be for communication, and when the phone came out, (Alexander Graham) Bell thought it would be for music. We are at the start of a tech revolution and no one knows what it is going to look like.” Twenty years ago no one could have dreamed that PCs would be so common and so powerful. The embedded revolution still lies ahead.

One survey showed that 47% of attendees at the Embedded Systems Conference were doing Internet-aware embedded systems. What do you think?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at His website is .

Reader Feedback:

I have been working on home automationfor several years and the thingI learned the hard way is thatdevices must be autonomous for longperiods of time, even if theynormally get managed by a centralauthority. I really don't believe indirect Internet connectivity, either.My devices are filtered throughan http server that provides somesense of security.

John Crunk
Owner
Panda Vista Enterprises


It is my opinion that it is the advertisers, market researchers, etc that are the ones that dream of Internet connected appliances. With that information, they could do research that they could sell to others for a lot of money, or use the information themselves.Hopefully there will be a backlash from people, once they realize how their privacy is currently being violated, and that will squash any further ideas of invading our privacy to such an extreme as to have our appliances “connected.”

At the very least, if one is going to have their privacy violated so, they should get the appliance for free.

Jack R.


I agree that a totally connected environment could get rather tedious as well as foolish.However, a reasonable amount of useful connectivity would be benificial. That said, I highly doubt that I would ever purchase an embedded toaster or web enabled microwave.I use some of the X-10 devices in my home as well as the X-10 computer program and it seems to work reliably. There are no less than a dozen other types of home control systems andmore on the way. Most of which I consider to be in the class of overkill or just plain silly, as many of them link to X-10 anyway and not with any significant benefits.

On the subject of external communications, bandwidth becomes a major issue, and anythingthat has to rely on “the Bells”, I believe, is an exercise in supreme frustration.Ask anyone who has had to set up or move a T-1 line or a frame relay. First define hurry.Then call your local business rep. Sixteen weeks!!? I'm sorry, did I say sixteen?I meant Twenty Three. And changing providers doesn't help because “the Bells” own the boxes,and if they say it's full and you have to wait, there'll be a “slight delay” until you canmake the switch.

If something could ever change “the Bells” to be the service oriented provider thatthey claim to be, we might start to get somewhere. I believe that there is too much RF inthe atmosphere as it is, so that option decreases in desireability. So until we canfind a fulcrum for Archimedes' lever, connectivity is the main issue and some sense in whatto connect how, rather than “What can I make a buck at today” becomes the second.

Cameron MacDonald
Design Technician
MIJA Industries


I agree with Jack to some extent.

However these products can be saleable only if the incremental cost of adding internet connectivity is marginal. Infact I think if cost of putting TCP/IP on small embedded devices reduces then TCP/IP can be used in whole lot of applications/industries. Currently lot many communication protocols are being used in different industries.

Shantanu Sutar
Consultant
Siemens Information Systems Ltd.


Well. I do agree with the author on the essence of the essay that there is still a long way to go before we can occupy ourself with designing andbuilding “Internet Aware” embedded systems.

But I belive that the reliability of the communication network is notonly the reason for it to be re-looked. Also the cost factor. Imaginerunning a TCP/IP stack on a 8 bit controller (it's cheap :)) and paying ahefty amount for the communication infrastructure for making it InternetSensible. How does this extra cost is going to really help the common enduser for the appliance. I think apart from showing to the world thetechnological achievements, the extra dollars is not going to serve anypurpose.

At least in country like mine (India) where the cost of basiccommunication infrastructure is high, this doesn't make sense..

Badrinath
Senior Software Engineer
Future Software Ltd.


I agree with Jack that most embedded appliances are better left alone. The embedded revolution will make these devices better, more efficient and easier to operate and hopefully reduce energy cost. But most of them may not really need to communicate. I really cannot think of what I would say to an Internet enabled toaster. But the more complex appliances that may need to have communication capability will benefit from a low cost connectivity solution. It will be nice to command a video recorder to record a program if I am going to be working late and I forgot to program it in the morning.

Avinash Kanade
Tata Infotech Limited


In your recent article you commented on the difficulties of building network capabilities into embedded systems. I agree.

We're the first SBC company to build with network processors and help companies build routers and gateways into their products. For Intranet devices, no problem. But the Internet device mfgs have crashed and burned. We had one Fleet management company get all the way to deployment and then realize they had no security built into the product. 1000 delivery vehicleswere going to be deployed in Korea with IP addresses and nothing to keep someone from driving along side and changing their route!!

Thanks for the comments, keep em coming.

Ken Applebaum
Embedded Planet


It's not like networked appliances are a new thing. On factory floors machines from diverse vendors regularly talk some commonprotocol. They send data to a master and get setpoints and other control signals back. An internet controlled toaster is ludicrous, but a refrigerator that “knows” what it contains can report this to your home computer. The computer could then suggest a variety of menus and preheat your oven. This could be especially useful to those who have diet controlled diabetes (some device could even report current blood sugar/insulin levels) or whose culinary skills resemble mine, that is, nonexistent.

I agree that the future may not look like we imagine, but we need to quit worrying about what won't work, and start thinking about what will.

Don Warbritton
Software Engineer
Ametek/Dixson

Jack Responds: Good point, Don. Focus on the positive. Always good advice.


I agree with Jack in the sense that it is difficult to imagine what the Embedded marketplace is going to look like with the techinical gizmos in full action. Basic question: What acute benefits does human race get by living in the networked environment and what are the investments required to make this into reality, and at the end of the whole excersise, is it really beneficial??? Let us think on this and figure out the real truth and think of better ways of using the technology to achive mission critical results.

Jannardhan Rao
Software Engineer
Mantra Broadband Private Ltd


I have predicted for the past several years or so that there will be a difficult “period of adjustment” that will have to occur in the progression towards a fully automated house. This will be brought about because the majority of the companies that will wind up manufacturing the networked appliances & devices will have little or no experience in building reliable, fault-tolerant equipment. Look at the automotive industry, for example. The first generation of cars & trucks with electronic ignitions were notoriously unreliable, and it took quite a few years to improve these systems to the point they are now. Just wait until someone's entire house “crashes” & they don't have air conditioning or lights for a week or so, until a new part can be installed or a software patch is installed. I personally intend to bypass this period & refrain from automating my home until the devices have reached the level of reliability found in common industrial equipment.

Harry Jones
Software Engineer

Jack Responds: Totally agreed. I'm an early adopter if, and only if, there's a real benefit to a technology. If not, I prefer to wait and see.


I very much agree with Jack. It was on this same site that I read an article on the wierdest embedded products of all time. Amongst these was a microwave oven that doubles as a web browser, ….but make sure not to overheat your dinner while browsing. Lets face it, as CPU's get smaller and more powerful, as far as wacky products go, you've seen nothing yet.

The main points by Jack, touch on the moral and practical issues to the consumer who buys these products. The other side of the coin however is the increasing difficulty faced by companies today in deciding what products to develop given that 1) there is already so much out there already 2) open software, common interfaces standards and the general modularity of embedded systems today means you do not require a lot of expertise to delve into a new field, just get a couple IO chips, FPGA, SOCS, and a good software library or RTOS and you could bang them all together in 6 months into whatever your fancies desire.

Therefore the main challenge for companies today is not so much the technology, but the product ideas, and as is obviously the case some companies are finding this a very difficult task indeed. You see ….It is not very easy for those who have sold their souls to the gods of Logic to suddenly turn around and become creative again.

Tayo Adebowale
Software Engineer
IBM

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