It may be a truism that technical conferences often reflect in a microcosm the turmoil, trends, debates, and concerns amongst the companies, organizations and professionals who attend.
Truisms are called that because usually they are true. And, truism though it may be, the Embedded Systems Conference held in San Francisco in April certainly reflected everything that is going on in the industry, positive and negative.
While the conference reflected the tough economic times, the common theme in my conversations with attendees and exhibitors was that while the near term is still rough going, everyone is at least cautiously upbeat.
Also indicative of optimism was the activity in relation to new product offerings. Currently, though, cost is still a big issue and many of the developers and the suppliers of tools and building blocks are still looking to stretch existing technology solutions as far as they can go. They seem to be breaking ground in terms of interesting and innovative applications and new ways to use old methodologies. But as far as the underlying technology there was little that was new from last year.
This could be seen most clearly in many of the nominees for the Best of Show for which I was honored to be one of the judges. One of the categories by which we were to judge the end product and the hardware/software tools and building blocks used was the degree to which they “embody new technology that advances the state of the art.”
With very few exceptions, there was nothing new in the way of underlying hardware and software. But in the ways in which the customers were using these existing and cost effective tools and building blocks there was a wealth of innovation.
For the vendors of the embedded hardware and software tools and real-time operating systems, this is good news. It means that the investments they have made in technology and ease of use enhancements over the past years is paying off, not just within the traditional bounds of embedded systems design, but outside it as well, in the variety of small-footprint computing and communications appliances and connected consumer products.
At least a quarter of the Best of Show entries were from companies whose tools and operating systems were used to build a number of PDAs for the general market and a number of specialized vertical market segments. Ditto for a number of converged devices that combined features of PDAs and cell phones and still others that incorporated video, cameras, and games. There were also a number of consumer electronics entertainment products.
What was especially interesting to me, given my column's focus on Internet-centric computing, was the degree to which connectivity has affected everything. It has become a factor that embedded developers must consider in every design they undertake, whether it is a traditional embedded product or one of the new applications that exploit the tools and technologies of this space.
But in the face of this wealth of opportunities for embedded companies and developers, there is also, a loss of direction, a loss of focus, a sense of what it is that companies developing tools and hardware and software infrastructure building blocks are really all about.
Amongst the engineers and developers in the trenches building the devices and systems — and industry veterans as well — there does not appear to be any confusion. In the eyes of industry old-timers such as John Carbone, formerly vice president of marketing at Green Hills Software, there are embedded devices and systems, things which you do not see and operate in the background or under the hood in the infrastructure and then there are what he calls “mini PCs.” There are numerous opportunities in both segments, he thinks, and it is disaster to mix them up in your mind.
Where I run into the most confusion is in the marketing departments of many of these same companies who are trying to position their companies and products to best advantage within what they perceive is the industry definition. Most often that so-called “industry definition,” is one that has been imposed upon the rest of us by larger companies whose marketing departments have a vested interest in maintaining or promoting a particular definition.
Some of the problem has to do with the fact that the embedded segment and computing in general is going through a paradigm change from one in which the computing mainstream was defined by the “personal computer” on our desktop to one in which much of our personal computing –driven by the availability of increasingly ubiquitous Internet connectivity — is distributed into a wide range of devices.
Some are clearly embedded consumer devices such as MP3 players, digital cameras, game controllers, VCRs and DVDs. Some are clearly mini PCs, such as PDAs, PDAs with WLAN capability, cell phones with PDA functionality, and those converged devices that throw games, video, and camera capabilities into the mix. Others are clearly embedded computers and controllers, part of the invisible infrastructure of industrial and network switch and router applications.
Rather than apply old names and old definitions to these new applications, we need to find a broad definition into which all of these various distributed devices and systems can fit and which does not encroach upon their traditional meanings.
For a number of reasons, I have come to like the term “appliance” or more specifically “Internet centric computing and communications appliance,” or “iAppliance,” to categorize these new distributed, connected devices. A number of companies are converging on this term, including thankfully, Microsoft Corp., which I blame for some degree the current confusion when in its attempt to dominate the embedded market, simply by corporate dictate redefined embedded to include PDAs and a lot of other vertical information devices. Now, you will notice, the organization internally responsible for the market for anything smaller than the desktop — what used to be called “Tier 0” devices — is now the Embedded and Appliance division.
Although the usage of the term appliance in this context seems to imply smallness, the reason I like the word is that the dictionary definitions hone pretty closely to what we are building here. In the dictionary an appliance, irrespective of size, is a device or instrument, which in a particular environment is used to accomplish a set of tasks. Along with this definition is the connotation that an appliance is seldom used alone. In the kitchen an electric can opener embedded in a drawer and a refrigerator as big enough to hold a dozen or more server blades are both kitchen appliances used in combination to prepare meals. Ditto in the new connected environment.
Why is coming up with the proper name and definition for what we are building so important? Among other things it allows you to see things much more clearly and gives you an ability to see further ahead in the future, to anticipate trends and plan for them.
Look at what it has done for the automotive industry. For tens of years, people like me were buying the heavy duty industrial and farm vehicles produced in truck factories around the world, tearing them apart and rebuilding them to accomplish a lot of personal and family tasks in the city and suburban environments for which they were certainly not designed and, moreover, vastly over-engineered.
Aside from the after market, it was a segment that auto companies had little or no foothold until someone realized that a totally new vehicle had come into existence, the “suburban utility vehicle” or SUV. This realization transformed a healthy piece of the truck business into a segment most auto companies now depend on for their profits and survival.
How did this correct naming of a new vehicle type affect the truck companies and the truck divisions? It turned them into the main profit centers for many auto concerns. SUVs are still built on truck manufacturing lines, using truck wheels, frames and tires, but they are not trucks, any more than a PDA using an embedded OS and built using embedded tooling is an embedded device.
By coming up with a proper definition of what it was they were building, they now had a clear view of where not only this new segment was going, but the traditional truck market as well. It allowed them to focus their energies precisely and use the synergisms between the two related, but separate, segments to draw on for inspiration and new products.