Electronic Design

Where Is Embedded Headed?

Perpetual change remains the norm for embedded hardware and software, even when it comes to standards.

Ubiquity defines embedded systems. You may not know it, though, because you'll never see them. Flash memory and compact hard drives lead the way, filling the void with ever-larger capacities. Flash memory is the low-power winner, but hard drives hold the edge when it comes to capacity. Both have changed the way mobile devices are designed, driving the growth of a plethora of devices, from cell phones to digital cameras to MP3 players.

In fact, choosing from the variety of hardware and software will be one of the toughest tasks design engineers will encounter this year. The overlap of possible solutions is occurring everywhere, from microcontrollers to robots. Frontline Robotics' stylish PC-Bot robot platform, for example, represents just one of dozens in this category using standard motherboards and embedded peripherals (Fig. 1).

The never-ending drive to build smaller, faster, and cheaper products means developers must continue to think outside the box. When they do, solutions like Home Diagnostics' Sidekick, a disposable glucose meter, come to fruition (Fig. 2).

Also, expect more designs to target permanent battery installation, especially in wireless applications that will incorporate ZigBee. This is leading to more off-the-shelf middleware and support software for power reduction, protocol stacks, and even development tools to tie everything together.

Storage solutions will deliver overlapping capabilities, too. WinSystems' industrial-grade CompactFlash will bring high-capacity storage to rugged environments (Fig. 3). However, it will have to compete with tiny hard disks that are more rugged.

Additionally, look for Serial ATA (SATA) and Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) drives to reach even higher densities. As magnetic media moves into vertical recording, companies like Seagate and Hitachi will push the limits by bringing 500-Gbyte drives to the table. Look for SAS to take off this year now that drives will be available in quantity.

Board vendors did very well last year, but they're not resting on their laurels. Look for a spike in shipments of new models and new architectures. Many of the latter were announced standards last year, yet this year will provide more concrete solutions.

VITA 46, MicroTCA (see "AdvancedTCA In A Small Package," Nov. 7, 2005, p. 65, ED Online 11311), and EPIC Express (see "An EPIC Tale: PC/104 Hitches On To PCI Express," Sept. 1, 2005, p. 58, ED Online 10939) will stand out. High-speed serial interfaces are their trademark and the future trend.

Open-source software will encroach upon all areas, including development tools. But that doesn't mean it won't cost anything. More developers are realizing that they've been paying for support and integration all along with proprietary solutions.

Eclipse and Linux adoption for commercial products still forges on. Proprietary solutions will hold their own, though. In-house tools will move by the wayside.

Other quick hits: Middleware will be huge this year—there's simply too much software in most products to create it all yourself. The importance of wireless protocol stacks won't recede. Data distribution and security software will become standard fare in more applications. Diagnostics tools will improve, but they will still be poor substitutes for good design and management tools. And, preventing bugs will continue to bear more fruit than fixing them one at a time.

It's going to be an interesting year.

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