April 01, 2010


Our passion for our smartphones is driving the embedded computing industry.

A couple days ago, someone asked me if Embedded Computing Design was all about mobile phones now. I’ll say that’s not quite true, but it is symptomatic. My job is to spot trends, and I’m pretty sure that “phonemance” (think “bromance,” only the object of affection is your phone, not your best buddy) has implications much larger for the embedded computing industry than any phone.

Have you heard or said this recently: “This phone is my life”? It’s even a hook in phone advertisements, with messages urging you to bring everything in your life together in one place and promising the ability to do anything, anywhere, even multiple things at the same time. What needs to be recognized is that this notion is driving our industry, for better or worse, and it’s a good idea to get your arms around it if you haven’t already.

When the business-ready nerds broke out of command lines and assembly language and showed up with Windows, that drove a big slice of the embedded computing industry as we have it right up to today. It seemed almost every embedded system was required to run Windows because that’s what the system user was familiar with. So the pendulum swung – look at CompactPCI, PC/104, and several other examples – toward x86 boards running Windows in many forms. Deeply embedded stuff, high-end Linux, and Real-Time Operating System (RTOS) environments survived because Windows simply didn’t fit on everything and didn’t do every job, but it still required serious nerds for those jobs, both to design and use them.

Now, look at what is happening today and learn from what has happened in the past. People want everything to behave like an iPhone or Android because the experience on their favorite device is what’s driving their 24/7 life. (Just those two, you ask? Maybe two, with some chance of three ultimately. BlackBerry better get moving fast; it still has a chance. Palm is in serious trouble. So is Symbian. So is Windows Phone 7 unless billions of dollars get it right on the first try. Mark my words; I’m a certified smart mobile device pundit now. Follow the 2D barcode on this page for more on that.) It’s not about the technology from the user perspective – it’s about what they love and use, and what they will spend their money and time on.

I don’t succumb easily, but as a baseball freak armed with a Droid, the first app I actually paid for was MLB At Bat 2010. My tweet after the first few minutes of using it was: “This is a lot cooler than the transistor radio I had as a kid.” If a Droid can tap into my emotions and make me feel really good about something, good enough to yap about it on a social network, it’s for real. Other Android and iPhone users will show you their favorite app with just as much passion and excitement.

Today’s bottom line for your consideration is in two parts:

First, embedded devices have historically been forced to adopt the interface people use the most, and that interface is now the smartphone, which will soon shake out into two, maybe three flavors tops.

Second, the stuff that brings us the most joy is the stuff that we don’t have to think much about to enjoy.


Figure 1: ECD in 2D