SMALL FORM FACTOR FORUM
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’Tis the season once again. Politicians seek elected offices, and we choose them by casting votes. Majority wins, and the weight of individual votes are equal. Winners go on to influence the direction of government. As voters, we accept the outcomes even if our candidates don’t win, but participation is nevertheless essential.
As embedded system developers, we exercise our Bill of Rights by creating our bill of materials (BOM) at the system level. It’s a laundry list of all of the components that we must make or buy. From flash to processor(s) to displays to connectors to cables, the output of our R&D process is a plethora of parts for Purchasing to procure.
But how does this really come to pass? There certainly aren’t governmental bodies that administer the collection of component applicants onto local ballots to pass around to system OEMs. Regulatory agencies exist in our space, yes, but they are focused on compliance. Instead, a device is defined with required features and cost targets deemed necessary to succeed in the market and meet company profitability goals.
With such a set of requirements in hand, engineers select building blocks to piece together. Functional decomposition and analysis, together with inevitable architectural trade-offs, plays a major role in the identification and ultimate selection of vendors and products. But the supply chain must be a generation or two ahead in product planning and technical innovation due to their own R&D lead times, to make products available when they are needed by system OEMs.
As a developer, you play a critical role in considering component candidates. Meticulously, you scour the web, call in reps, research technology trends, digest technical articles and user manuals, order samples to test, and even comb through vendor financials or other available supplier information. The extent of your “background checks” determines your reputation in the long run. Not doing your homework up front could send your product line and company in an unpopular direction.
This election season may seem overwhelming. Four years ago, maybe there was only one viable processor vendor, a few SBC vendors, a particular small flash form factor, one thermal solution, and several qualified LCDs from which to choose—such a simple ballot to fill out in hindsight. The last several years have ushered in massive competition among CPUs, module form factors, firmware vendors, OS and tool vendors, displays, connectors, ruggedized components, and the list goes on and on. Good luck with that. Besides the products and technologies, vendor “pitches” and trade show keynotes can sometimes be deceptive or elusive, like campaign slogans and statistic-slanted rhetoric concocted by marketing “spin doctors.”
Some candidates, like the stackable PC/104 ISA bus for example, stubbornly will not die, even going hand-in-hand with PCI Express and USB in what seems like an impossible Hollywood-esque marriage. Sometimes you must dig below the surface and challenge conventional wisdom on your path to picking a perfect processor product. You might believe that something is dated, yet a simple search reveals widespread long-term support commitments. Old, simple technologies might always be lower cost, easier to design with, and have reduced noise susceptibility and EMI emissions, for instance. Some technology demonstrations or form factors might look like the new wave but never achieve economies of scale for cost reductions.
But the net of all this is quite simple at a high level. The future of the embedded market is in your capable hands. For even though you do not invent the technologies you buy, your vote selects among competing products and innovations. The best technologies that suit the most applications will win. You vote with every design decision. Your buyer formally casts votes with every purchase order, and revenue helps competent suppliers survive and grow. In the high-tech marketplace, we don’t worry about electronic voting machines or “hanging chads.” Embedded is loaded with suppliers of all sizes serving all market segments, so every vote counts. Don’t just wait and let others set the direction for you. Get out and vote!