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By Jack Ganssle

Tool Costs

Published 5/21/2007

"Why are you pounding that nail with a brick?"

"Hammers cost too much."

Silly, right?

What about this: "We're looking for a cheap IDE; can you help?"

Equally silly, in my opinion, yet I get several such email requests each day.

Why is the only adjective describing IDE "cheap?" What about "reliable?" Or Windows vs Linux? I can think of a hundred critical technical qualifiers, yet all pale, it seems, compared to "cheap."

The embedded tools business is microscopic. Various estimates peg it around $1b to $2b, but that number is deceptive. It includes sales and royalties from RTOSes, a segment that represents a huge but unknown percentage of all tools. Most embedded tool vendors are tiny. There's practically no demand for commercial tools.

When I was in the in-circuit emulator business, we found that bosses objected to spending thousands on debugging tools. "Just don't make any mistakes!" they'd rage when confronted with a $8k purchase request. "Think of the money we'll save!" But the numbers are stark: C developers average a 5 to 10% error rate, after the compiler finds syntax errors. Even a small project can reasonably expect to deal with thousands of bugs. A tool that saves even a few minutes on each pays for itself many times over.

Debugging typically consumes about half the schedule. A tool that shaves a mere 10% from that is priceless. Yet vendors of static analyzers and other tools that automatically find bugs have a hard time getting management to sign checks.

The hardware world is different. I hardly ever hear: "We need a cheap logic analyzer. Any ideas?" Yet those tools, too, are primarily used to find an engineer's design errors.

What do you think? Why is it so hard to pry tool bucks from the accountants' stingy hands?