Embedded Intelligence

Used in everything from consumer electronics to industrial equipment, embedded systems –small, specialized computer systems stored on a single microprocessor — are playing a major role in the growth of the Internet and the boom of wireless communication channels.

Due in part to embedded systems, more and more consumer products and industrial equipment are becoming Internet-friendly. For example, DVD players are now dialing in to Internet databases for movie trivia, and GPS (Global Positioning System) mechanisms are often integrated into automobiles. It is all proof that the Internet and wireless technologies are not just for personal computers anymore.

Thanks to these broadening avenues of communication, companies now have a growing host of opportunities to streamline business operations such as sales and marketing, to simplify customer and partner transactions, and to dramatically increase employee productivity.

By leveraging the growing popularity of embedded system-driven devices, such as PDAs (personal digital assistants) and Web-enabled cell phones, organizations can tap potentially massive new revenue streams and make a positive impact on their bottom lines.

Most embedded systems are small enough to sit on the end of your thumb and are usually hidden within much larger and more complex mobile computing or electronic devices, so they often go unnoticed. But embedded systems actually represent the vast majority of semiconductor sales. According to the World Semiconductor Trade Statistics blue book, there are an estimated 5 billion embedded microprocessors in use today — a whopping 94 percent share of the world market. (By comparison, unit sales of high-profile PC processors, such as the Intel Corp.’s Pentium and Motorola Inc.’s PowerPC, check in at only 6 percent market share.)

Getting smarter

Thanks to the Internet and the market explosion of new technologies, embedded systems are becoming smarter and more network-friendly every day. So, whereas today’s embedded systems may perform such mundane tasks as synchronizing the clock in a microwave oven, tomorrow’s systems might download recipes via the Internet or alert repair companies of product malfunction.

Clearly, the growing use of embedded systems on the Internet also represents a lucrative proving ground for vendors looking to extend their reach of desktop operating systems and development tools. Because there is not yet an established market leader in embedded operating systems, companies such as Microsoft (with Windows CE), Sun Microsystems Inc. (with Java 2 Micro Edition), and Red Hat Inc. (with Linux for Embedded Developers) all face an excellent opportunity to branch their operating systems into this promising market.

The challenge these companies face, of course, is to deliver quality products while ensuring that their operating systems can interoperate with similar devices in the market. No obvious leader has yet taken the lead in this field, and the next few years should offer some fascinating developments from competing vendors, each of which is struggling to achieve an edge.

Thinking small

Most experts predict that the current explosion of activity in the embedded technology sector is only going to get bigger. A recent report by market research firm International Data Corp. predicts that by 2002, Internet appliances — primarily consisting of embedded systems — could rival the unit volume numbers posted by all PC vendors combined.

Dataquest echoes this sentiment, predicting that by 2003, 400 million Internet appliances will be in use, and that by 2010, all home PCs will be replaced by embedded system-based devices. In this scenario, most home offices would probably use one or more separate Internet appliances, which will either be industry-specialized or will converge many technologies (phone, fax, Internet, and TV) into one device.

Keys to growth

Embedded systems have a number of industry trends to thank for their growing popularity, at least in part. First of all, their phenomenal growth is closely linked to the increasing availability of more powerful and less expensive processors, as well as to the decreasing price points of low-cost, high-density memory. Industry analysts are also pointing to several other factors that are driving embedded system usage, all closely associated with business and consumer expectations.

The first factor is the ongoing emergence of standards-based operating systems for embedded devices. Current usage trends show the market to be fragmented with developers employing a combination of commercial, free, and proprietary operating systems for development. With this in mind, many major operating system vendors are repurposing their wares for the embedded marketplace.

A case in point is Microsoft: At the recent Embedded Systems Conference 2000 in San Jose, Calif., the company made several announcements of its intentions to promote the use of the Windows CE operating system in Web-enabled cell phones and PDAs. These plans included offering enhancements to Windows CE 3.0 to make it easier to network and communicate among embedded system-based devices.

Not to be outdone is Sun Microsystems, which, in conjunction with a variety of industry partners, has developed the Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) standard, a development language that combines a small-footprint JVM (Java virtual machine) with a set of APIs for use in a range of embedded applications.

Of course, Linux vendors are also thinking small. For example, Red Hat Software’s Red Hat for Embedded Developers provides a toolkit for developers looking to create open-source applications for embedded-system devices that contain as little as 32KB of memory.

As embedded operating system choices continue to percolate to the top, the real winners will be the developers who are able to decrease the time to market for business applications. Ultimately, this will allow businesses to innovate more quickly, delivering new services to customers at a much more rapid rate.

To complement the additional embedded operating system choices, integrated software developers have also made strides to streamline application development. Only a few short years ago, embedded software development environments paled in comparison to their native desktop PC counterparts. But the gap has closed considerably.

For example, Green Hills Software’s Multi 2000 IDE runs under Windows and Unix and allows development in a variety of applications, including C, C++, Embedded C++, and Fortran. Furthermore, the Multi 2000 environment includes several familiar desktop application development features, including run-time error checking, source-level debugging, version control, and remote debugging to a variety of target environments.

As do operating system choices, innovations in integrated software development environments — designed specifically with embedded systems in mind — dramatically reduce development time. By removing stumbling blocks to embedded systems development, such optimized IDEs eliminate headaches for developers, increasing their efficiency and lowering development costs.

The continual rise of Internet usage by consumers and businesses has also lit a fire under the growth of embedded technology. Because these systems can interconnect with one another via a myriad of wired and wireless networking options, they are supremely viable in this marketplace. For example, high-level protocol support for TCP/IP and SMTP is now commonplace among the embedded systems used in most handheld devices.

SNMP agents can also be easily integrated into embedded systems. This makes it easier to monitor performance and update configuration information using industry-standard network monitoring tools, such as Hewlett-Packard Co’s OpenView.

Comprehensive, seamless, and worldwide connected embedded systems may still be a pipe dream today, but they are quickly becoming more accessible and controllable thanks to LANs, WANs, and the Internet. Many businesses are already using embedded technology to innovate with voice, video, and data traffic, hoping to set the stage for a competitive advantage in the future.

With so much attention being paid to making the Internet pervasive, smart, and easy to use, the sky is the limit for embedded systems. Beyond their sheer numbers and dwindling price points, embedded systems are becoming smarter and more controllable — a potent combination that benefits both businesses and consumers alike.

Technology Analyst Todd Coopee (todd_coopee@infoworld.com) covers a variety of Internet topics for the Test Center.


Embedded systems

Business Case: Embedded system-based devices are becoming smarter and more accessible via the Internet, opening up new contact points, customer service options, and revenue streams for businesses. In addition to promising improved channels of communication and increased employee productivity, embedded systems also support enhanced business operations such as CRM (customer relationship management) and marketing.

Technology Case: In combination with advanced development tools, embedded operating systems (tiny, specialized computer systems stored on a single microprocessor) are making it easier to integrate embedded system technology into a variety of devices with an astounding range of possible business and home uses. As these systems become smarter and more Web-and network-friendly, they are fueling a massive growth in the Internet and wireless communication channels, and will someday bully the PC right out of the market.


+ Improving development tools

+ Extended functionality to small resource-constrained devices

+ Rich Web and networking possibilities


– Do not allow for upgrades or reconfiguration

– Lack of agreement on standards and competing operating systems may inhibit interoperability

Prices listed are in US currency.