The convergence of wireless com-munications and the Internet in business and consumer products, like Internet-enabled phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), PCs, and other handheld consumer devices, is creating increased demand for embedded processors and the real-time operating systems (RTOSs) that run on them.
Because today's OEMs face ever-shorter design cycles—sometimes as short as three months—they often select a commercial RTOS for the job. For designers of high-volume products, one of the most important factors in choosing an RTOS is cost, and commercially available RTOSs can be quite expensive.
Run-time royalties are particularly troublesome for high-volume products because they're charged on a per-unit basis. Years ago, the cost of embedded processors and memory was relatively high, and these royalties didn't account for a significant part of the unit cost. But as prices of embedded processors and memory fall, run-time royalties become a larger and larger component of overall unit cost. This process leads to a huge drain on company profit margins.
The laws of economics dictate that in a competitive marketplace, like that of consumer electronic devices, prices will drop until they approach an absolute bottom. In the case of run-time royalties, which are pure profit for RTOS vendors, that absolute bottom cost is zero.
In addition to royalties, a number of other upfront and ongoing costs are associated with purchasing an RTOS. One of the biggest upfront costs is that of source code. Most large OEMs want the RTOS source code in order to resolve RTOS and application bugs as they occur.
Without the source code, the OEM's product design team must rely on the documentation and support staff of the RTOS vendor. Until now, most RTOS vendors were reluctant to make their source code available to their customers, and when they did, they charged a hefty fee.
On the other hand, vendors of royalty-free RTOS solutions typically provide the source code to their customers with no additional fee. Moreover, they generally charge their customers less for the upfront RTOS and development tool licenses, technical support, and maintenance.
Clearly, there's a trend among consumer and business electronics industry leaders to choose a royalty-free operating system. For example, in February of this year, Hewlett-Packard announced that it had selected Green Hills Software's royalty-free Multi software development tools and ThreadX RTOS for the company's inkjet printers and all-in-one devices for the consumer and business markets.
Hewlett-Packard produces four of the top five selling printers in the world. Until now, it had been shelling out millions of dollars per year in royalties for the RTOS that it had been using. Eliminating RTOS run-time royalties was a key factor in Hewlett-Packard's decision to replace its previous RTOS with ThreadX, helping the company to bolster its leadership position in the printer marketplace.
The choice, then, is perfectly clear. OEMs considering an RTOS for a mass-market product will find that the royalty-free commercial RTOS route is the best way to go. Commercial RTOSs provide a proven off-the-shelf solution that reduces the time-to-market. They also enhance profit margins by reducing or eliminating source-code, per-unit licenses, and maintenance costs. Watch out, royalty-based commercial RTOSs, because your days are clearly numbered.