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Embedded World

Embedded world was always big. Now it is enormous. Nearly 700 companies were exhibiting there this year (twice the number booked for ESC in San Jose next month), with over 17,000 visitors.  Just think – if I spent half an hour talking to each exhibitor, and that is a journalist’s schedule for an average interview, allowing for 40 hour weeks, and not including lunch, coffee and comfort break, it would take nearly nine weeks just to meet everyone.  Nor does that include the press conferences, which normally demand an hour of attention, nor the conference that ran for three days – so call it ten weeks altogether. The power point slides alone would stretch from here to somewhere way over there.

So what follows is, as so often, a personal view based on a relatively random sample with bias introduced by companies I have known a long time, ones that looked interesting, the aggressiveness of the Marketing Communications team and the persuasiveness of the PR agency at particular companies, and who I bumped into in the press office. The PR people are always pushing the latest announcement, but normally the interesting things often arise once the “news” slides are out of the way.  The announcements will almost all have been posted on the ETJ web site and covered by the daily news reports, so my mission, which I chose to accept, is to try to see if there were longer term trends and to identify the things that many people agreed were important.

These seemed to be, in no particular order, automotive and medical markets, increased focus by suppliers on providing packages of “solutions” (sorry about using the old cliché, but we do at last seem to be getting there) and greater penetration of software development tools. Also, the new buzzword in certain areas is virtualization, which cropped up in four meetings on the last day.  I plan to try and find out what people mean by virtualization for an article later this year.

Last year there seemed to be table football everywhere you turned.  This year, less engaging perhaps but more directly relevant, there were a lot of cars and many of the people were talking automotive as a target market. To some extent you would expect this at an event based in Germany, the country where much of the running is made in innovation and standards for the automotive market, but this year conversations often emphasised automotive, particularly with the maturing of the AUTOSAR (Automotive Open System Architecture)communication standard. This year Fujitsu replaced their very large football table in the entrance with a racing car seat fitted with standard controls and a bunch of boxes running AUTOSARs applications: people were queuing to carry out test drives.

Medical electronics has long escaped from the hospital or surgery into the home and personal blood pressure monitors, blood sugar monitors and other diagnostic tools are now cheap and accurate. One area that people were talking about is adding communication to them – once you have measured your blood sugar level, the result is also transmitted to your physician to be added to your medical record with the physician being alerted for an out of line reading or an unsatisfactory trend.  No one seemed to be able to give details of live projects but there was a strong feeling that  this was a real trend.

Outside the large companies, the embedded world has lagged behind the enterprise and other areas like chip design in deploying software development tools. Modelling entire systems, hardware and software, particularly as UML has been extended by SysML, is beginning to move into the larger tier two companies, in some cases by mandates from their tier one customers in aerospace and safety critical applications. Telelogic has been giving away stand alone modelling software (Telelogic Modeller – which conforms to UML 2.1) and has seen a steady conversion to Rhapsody and Tau as developers want to generate code or exchange information with other tools. These conversions have come from a wide range of companies.  Another company offering free tools is Perforce, whose Software Configuration Management tool replaces public domain version control software, and extends it further.  More generally a number of different companies, both hardware and tools suppliers, say that they are seeing an increasing use of software tools by developers and a move away from just writing code and sorting the problems with debug after compilation.

FPGAs are breaking into the embedded scene, and Xilinx, Altera, Actel and Lattice were all there. Altera and Lattice were both offering what, with a certain amount of trepidation, I can only call “solutions”.  Early FPGAs came with a book of macros and that was it. Now with the size of an FPGA it is possible to think of them as platforms, with processors, memory and custom logic. The user wanting to add a particular form of communication to the device doesn’t want to have source IP and software and then learn all about the protocols. And the FPGA guys are giving them a complete package to do just that. Lattice were talking about adding PCIExpress, and Altera had a range of different products aimed at the automotive market.

The microcontroller guys are doing the same thing. Cyan gave away 200 RF dev kits at the show, and report that on the second day a visitor returned, clearly having spent the night playing with (sorry – evaluating) the kit he had been given. Luminary are also providing project oriented dev kits, and back this up with modules and module designs.  Most dev kits use a USB interface and are mounted on pcb cards with a USB connector at one end and pins for monitoring or connecting to interfaces at the other. Infineon had some very neat kits where the circuits were protected by Perspex bubbles, for example for their CAN bus development kit/reference design.  Infineon even claimed that you could probably interface the module with your existing in-car CAN network, although they don’t recommend it. Silicon Labs had a nice little demo of their ultra-low power microcontroller which, at 0.9V, will run happily off a single cell battery.

Suppliers of the free or nominal cost dev kits/reference designs see them as designed partly for the engineer to take home and tinker with.  This way, despite probably contributing to the break down of many relationships, they get the engineer hooked on the product.  This means that the packaging is becoming more attractive, as with the Infineon parts and they are designed for fast set up and use: claims like “ten minutes from opening the box to having a demo running” were common.

In summary, while life for the embedded engineer is never going to be easy, the suppliers of tools and target devices are trying very hard to make it less difficult. And if you can possibly find your way to Nuremberg for next years event, mark March 3rd to 5th in your diary for an overwhelming experience.

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