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Is it February? Then it must be embedded world

When you come out of three days of hard-sell briefings from company spokespeople at an event like Nürnberg’s embedded world (lower case e and w – exciting in German), sometimes the trends in the industry are obvious: a couple of years ago everybody was briefing on their new ARM-based microcontrollers. This year there were far fewer certainties. The only immediately obvious threads were tabletop football (soccer) and robots. In the entrance area, Fujitsu had a huge set-up with space for what looked like a dozen players, and several stands had people twirling the rods on standard-sized games. Also there was a plethora of different robots, there because the robot builder had used devices from the exhibitor, used tools from the exhibitor, or simply because the robot was cute and kind of technical. Infineon ticked both boxes with robots playing football on a tabletop.

In the halls, the aisles were, as always, congested, and most of the 590 exhibitors seemed to be doing a lot of business – suggesting that the embedded industry is not sharing in Germany’s relatively poor economic performance. And embedded world, while projecting itself as a European conference, is overwhelmingly visited by Germans – who take a visit to an exhibition seriously. It is common to see them marking up their show catalogues to plan their day when they are riding the UBahn to the show ground. And most will be expected to present a detailed trip report when they return to the office.

But on to the technical trends. The first of these was modelling. Modelling, building high-level graphical descriptions of systems and their behaviour for definition and documentation, has been around for some time: UML (Unified Modelling Language -the most widely used basis for tools) is celebrating its tenth birthday this year. Companies have built tool suites around the modelling tools, developing code generators and debugging tools with the aim of keeping the model, the code, and the documentation in synch as the project develops. Traditionally, these tools have not been cheap, and UML, which also has a role in enterprise software development, has been used for defence/aerospace high-integrity type applications: large projects with high budgets.

The tool makers clearly want to get more customers and have been working on tools for the medium level of complexity, just as developers are recognising that the projects they are working on have become much more complex. Earlier this year, Telelogic announced a free UML tool, which was being pushed energetically at embedded world. And IAR was promoting Visual Studio, an implementation of the state machine profile (effectively a sub-set) of UML .  This is now closely coupled to a compiler, to generate C/C++ code automatically, and a debugger within the IAR Embedded Workbench.

SysML is another UML profile that is aimed more specifically at the mix of software and hardware that makes up an embedded system. With the final version of OMG SysML due to be approved in April 2007, the modelling guys were all talking of SysML; for example, Artisan’s latest release of its studio product will provide full SysML support.

At the high end, the French company Esterel, whose modelling and code generation tools produce safety-certified code, is combining both data flow and state machine flows in a single environment, which they are calling Unified Modelling Style.

The RTOS world was relatively quiet, but Green Hills was blowing the trumpet for the tenth anniversary edition of Integrity, which now supports multiple cores.

The other software announcements were, on the whole, the usual new versions of existing products or partnership programmes, making X’s software run with Y’s. There were fewer of these this year, in part because the raft of Eclipse announcements in 2006 means that many development tools should run co-operatively in a single Eclipse Integrated Design Environment. Well, that’s the theory.

For some years now, ARM-based hardware releases were a staple at embedded world, with manufacturers regularly releasing entire families of microcontrollers based on the latest ARM architecture. This year, such announcements were very thin on the ground. Oxford Semiconductor, which specialises in communications devices and ships chips for interfacing serial and PCI standards, for example, came clean about the ARM processors in many of these devices and launched a device where the user can access the processor while having Ethernet, PCI, serial and USB connectivity. The ARM9 processor has a memory management unit and is supplied with Linux from Wind River. NXP, the re-born Philips Semiconductors, has created an ARM 7 LCD controller, another example of the cross-over between processors and application-specific devices.

ARM’s latest architecture is Cortex, and Luminary, the only existing supplier of Cortex based silicon, added five more Cortex products to its lineup. However, while there were no other Cortex announcements, there were rumours of some to come by the time of ESC in April.

ARM itself was interesting, with two new processors. The Mali units are the first fruits of ARM’s acquisition of Norwegian Falanx Microsystems in 2006.  They are two 2D/3D graphics processing engines, designed mainly for mobile multimedia and game playing. They run Swerve, ARM’s Java-based graphics software.

Again in hardware there were announcements of tie-ups, but a particularly interesting announcement was that ST has licensed capacitive touch-sensing technology from Quantum, a small UK company that has built a strong presence in this area. ST will be able to sell key-pads and matrices with integral controllers. The Quantum technology requires minimal processing and interfacing and also addresses touch-wheels, like those on the iPOD, and slider bars. This is a technology that is exploding in popularity, and ST chose to license rather than to develop their own from scratch in order to get into the market more quickly.

Motor control is an area that is attracting enormous interest, mainly as reducing the energy a motor consumes is a hot topic. Approaches vary from just adding a PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) option to a full range microcontroller, as Cyan has done with the eCOG1X controller, released at embedded world, or developing new algorithms and dedicated devices, as Infineon has done. And in between is a wide range of offerings at 8, 16 and 32 bits.

Boards are a perennial staple for embedded applications, and with the magnificent alphabet soup describing interfaces and formats, a vast array of processor options and FPGAs for customising and acceleration, there seems to be a board to fit every need. New format on the block is VPX, aimed at defence and aerospace with a ruggedised variant.

The must-have processor this year is Intel’s Core 2 Duo, with a range of board formats and functions, many aimed at the Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) segment of defence and aerospace, with its serious price tags. Announcements came from Concurrent Technology and Kontron (nine new boards), among others. Other companies are releasing boards with last year’s fashionable Core Duo, while those addressing more conservative markets are using even older devices.
Before this degenerates into a list of products and companies, just three more snippets. Silicon Labs claims to be driving an 8-bit MCU at 100 MIPS, Aonix was pushing PERC Pico for hard real-time Java (hard real-time Java – is that possible?), and Altium was showing the very stylish new version of the Nanoboard re-configurable development system. (See “A mile in their shoes”, October 2006.)

So – final views: embedded world showed an industry that is healthy and developing, but with nothing that jumped out as epoch making. Maybe the excitement will be at ESC San Jose? Perhaps not: although there were nudges and winks, and press releases under embargo, nothing yet seems to be that thrilling, just the solid work of providing products and tools for good embedded products.

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