For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 28,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.
By Jack Ganssle
Two years ago the industry was abuzz with predictions of "convergence", the coming merge of the PC and TV. Pundits predicted the two would fuse into some sort of gaming/Internet/entertainment complex. Since then scanty evidence barely supports this view. Certainly TiVo and HDTV and the push towards ultra-huge plasma and LCD screens is putting more compute horsepower into the living room. But these products target just the entertainment part of the convergence equation.
I wonder if the experts got it all wrong. Convergence? Sure, but not in the living room. Perhaps the most accurate prognosticator of all was Chester Gould, the author of the Dick Tracy comic strip. Decades ago he painted a picture of instantaneous two way video communication via a smart watch. Heaps of abandoned products taught us the watch is too small to offer effective and rich interaction, but the cell phone is a similar personal accessory that may indeed be just the nexus needed for convergence of communications, the net, entertainment, and more.
A report in the November 23rd Economist suggests that some 400 million cell phones will be sold this year (world wide); of those 16 million will have built-in cameras. Nokia figures they will sell 50-100m handsets next year with color screens. The technology in these things far exceeds what's needed just for phone conversations.
I make fun of a pal who has a belt full of tech toys - pager, phone, PDA and more. He looks like a city cop when fully outfitted. We joke that men of the future will all carry purses, just to hold all of the electronic gadgets that we tote around.
Now, though, my new phone includes a calculator, voice recorder, and primitive scheduler, functions traditionally associated with PDAs. No doubt someone already offers phones with MP3 players and more. In fact, NTT DoCoMo just announced they will standardize on QuickTime for future video cell phone features (http://www.onlinereporter.com/charts/tor327/tor327.html#2). It looks to me that the phone will be the utility device of the future, the nexus for personal information management and communications.
What will this convergence mean to the embedded market? Surely a cell phone is the essence of an embedded system; it's the first product that comes to mind when I try to tell non-techies what it is we do.
The inexorable march of Moore's Law tells us the astonishing designs that squeeze so much into a 4 ounce cell phone will look like archaic pong games in a few years. Cell phones are where the consumer action is; yet the ability to merely make a phone call is no longer a factor in selling these devices. Vendors add features - lots and lots of features - to differentiate their products. (Or, they morph products into fashion statements, with interchangeable covers to capture the fickle teen market).
When phones include all of the functionality of a PDA, will they be embedded systems? Do color displays, GUIs and downloadable games, or a Windows-like OS (like the apparently awful phone from Orange - see http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/64/28351.html) suggest we're really building PCs in a small box?
There will always be a deeply embedded market, but I wonder if the consumer product of the future is a GUI-rich, Microsoft-enabled, 5 GHz PC packaged into a handheld bundle.
It sure beats carrying a purse.