Widely anticipated by many semiconductor companies is the coming growth wave that is referred to as the "Internet of Things" (IoT).
What is the IoT? The IoT are devices embedded with sensors that have the ability to communicate their data via Internet networks to a centralized data centers to be analyzed. What makes this so exciting is the access to this data gives corporations the ability to create new business models that increase added value to their products, for example, industrial manufacturing equipment can transmit diagnostic data that allows preventative maintenance to be taken before a manufacturing line fails which can result in much higher revenue losses. Many industry experts, consultants, and analysts have estimated the potential of this growth wave to be over five billion units with over $2 trillion in potential revenue. These volume and revenue estimates are getting the attention of semiconductor companies as they try to figure out how to speed along this market wave to improve demand for their silicon products.
Today, many embedded devices are typically isolated and designed for a specific fit and function. One can think of utility meters, coffee makers, and thermostats. Clearly, we are not talking about CPU populated single-board computing solutions, but rather low-powered microcontroller (MCU) devices. These embedded devices are evolving due to the advances in technology, specifically in the areas of wireless networking and MEMs sensors. The affordability of these technologies, coupled with the low powered ARM® CPUs that provide scalable performance from CortexTM-M0 to the CortexTM-M4, have allowed embedded devices to evolve into the "Internet of Things."
Ecosystems Support Advancement of the Internet of Things
The EmbeddedSoftwareStore.com (ESS) is a marketplace that enables the selling of software components and associated products. ARM and Avnet Electronics Marketing joined forces to create the ESS to help provide a solution to the industry challenge of escalating software complexity facing the IoT developers. The ESS gives engineering communities the option to buy vs. make software to accelerate development and time to market.
The ARM Connected Community® is a global network of over 970 companies aligned to provide a complete solution for silicon products based on the ARM architecture. The Connected Community® is the "yellow pages" for independent third-party vendors. This is the ecosystem that developers often tap to help them innovate and create next-generation products.
Software lays the foundation for innovation. Demonstrated by those sexy products in the consumer markets such as smart phones and tablets, these products set the expectation for the next generation of embedded products.
Software developers are now the long tail of the development cycle.
In a recent survey by UBM on the greatest technology challenges for 2012, the top six reasons all relate to the challenges of software development.
Figure One: UBM Embedded Market Survey - April 2012
Developers need to create software that will incorporate the application software of the product and add RTOS, diagnostics, connectivity, and complex user interfaces, as well as new product feature enhancements. These additions are not trivial and represent the barrier that prevents many organizations from evolving their embedded device into an "Internet of Things" device.
In large companies that have centralized R&D and large-scale production of their products, they either contract out their software development or hire the necessary number of software engineers to do it completely in-house ; they have the capability to amortize their software development over a large volume. However, for those embedded markets companies, many do not have the luxury to add more resources as easily. These development teams are typically one to eight engineers and most of the development is done in-house. Forty percent of these companies do not use external software whether that is open or commercial source. Simply adding resources is not a viable solution for them. Additionally, these companies may suffer a restricted or dwindling engineering talent pool or the cost structure is prohibitive. Basically, the lower production volumes make it more difficult to brute force a solution.
The ESS provides a potential solution to the software complexity challenge by providing embedded developers across the globe access to proven solutions with competitive pricing, licensing terms, support, compatibility and interoperability.
How does the ESS help developers?
- It features a broad array of reputable embedded software vendors
- It enables users to easily locate available software supporting the ARM architecture via powerful search capabilities to allow customers to find what they are looking for by category, keyword, silicon device or vendor
- It eases the acquisition process of software featuring downloadable software with click-thru licensing agreements and purchasing via credit cards or their Avnet account (currently only in the Americas)
- The store has a forum feature which allows interaction between vendor and customers regarding questions and concerns. Technical questions are routed directly to vendors via the ESS
Solutions to Enable the IoT
- Development tools - such as Integrated Development Environments (IDE) offer the compiler and the debug environment for software developers. This is the starting point for many software developers and often a key criterion in selecting a processor
- Real Time Operating Systems (RTOS) - increasingly popular solutions as the embedded user migrates from 8-bit MCU solutions to more powerful, flexible 32-bit Cortex-M powered MCUs. RTOS helps developers with its "instantly on" capability while keeping the power consumption down for battery-powered devices. Additionally the RTOS helps the CPU manage an increasing number of interrupts from communication networks and user interfaces. The ESS has a number of RTOS vendors with different features, capabilities and memory footprints.
- Connectivity - to access the internet, you may need a variety of wired and wireless communication protocols. TCP/IP, USB, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are examples of standard communication protocols that are required to access the Internet. Developers of embedded devices are experts in the application code, but look at connectivity as a horizontal, base technology to which they will build on.
- Graphical User Interfaces - consumer products such as smartphones and tablets have set the standard for embedded products to have visual human interfaces. Micro browers allow developers to render HTML and CSS content on low-cost, low-power Cortex-M solutions.
Why start from scratch making your own RTOS, connectivity stacks or user interfaces when you can buy a more mature and proven product from a commercial vendor whose business is focused on improving, support and maintaining the product? Commercial solutions are made available on the ESS at a fractional cost of what it would take to develop.
The "Internet of Things" will happen - the question is really, when will it happen? The technology is clearly in place. To move this emerging technology from early adopter to early majority in the technology adoption lifecycle, businesses need to take two critical steps. First, create the new business models to demonstrate value to the end customers by answering the question, "What can I do with this ability to gather data?" Second, figure out how to solve software complexity challenge. Engineering needs options to help enable the "Internet of Things" to jump the chasm.
Bill Gates once said, "In this business, by the time you realize you're in trouble, it's too late to save yourself. Unless you're running scared all the time, you're gone." I think this quote is appropriate in emphasizing the need for embedded product businesses to embrace the "Internet of Things" wave and not resist. The companies that start solving the software complexity issue by taking steps to embrace options such as solutions marketplace like the EmbeddedSoftwareStore.com will be better prepared to integrate third-party IP into their own development process, and they will be the potential leaders in the IoT movement.