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EDITORIAL

Don’ Need No Steenking Form Factors!

BY TOM WILLIAMS, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

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Disruptive technology is notoriously hard to predict. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be so disruptive. Still, there appears to be a development on the horizon that could shake up the way a portion of the small form factor segment is made and marketed, especially when it comes to small, computationally very powerful mobile devices that are increasingly connected to the Internet of Things.

With wirelessly connected 32-bit computer systems that include hefty memory, flash and rich complements of I/O now getting down to the size of credit cards, is there really a need for a specific form factor? At the same time, no one board module fits all needs; hardly any will use all the possible signals and connections that are available on today’s CPUs. Rather, they will want to optimize cost and board space by using just the USB ports, PCIe lanes, GPIO signals, A/D and D/A channels needed by the application and its potential enhancements. Trying to find a credit-card size module that fits all kinds of different requirements could be a real challenge. At the same time, the COM model of having the CPU, memory, etc., on the COM connected to a custom carrier board is less attractive when the goal is to fit everything into a small handheld package.

The alternative is to identify the CPU and other components needed, verify a design with some sort of prototype, and then design the actual circuit board (small though it may be) from scratch. But what if there were another path for the OEM, one supported by the semiconductor manufacturers? What if semiconductor vendors made low-cost prototyping boards available for their chips that did bring out all the signals? Developers could then more easily create a prototype, develop the software and verify their design using only the subset of the available signals they need. But wouldn’t they then have to go off and design their specific board from scratch? Yes, unless . . .

Unless they had access to the complete hardware design including schematics, bill of materials and even the CAD files for producing the circuit board. Then they could take their proven prototype and start with the whole design of the board, which they could then modify to remove and/or add the features required by their application, giving them a huge head start in producing the completed product. This form of open source hardware is starting to appear in what is usually regarded as a segment for hobbyists, but it has potentials far beyond mere tinkering.

There are indications that such a thing could happen in the form of what I am calling “dot-org” boards. These include such things as the ARM-based BeagleBoard line and the Raspberry Pi along with x86-based MinnowBoard and Gizmo Board. There is more detail about these and other products in this issue’s “Editor’s Report.” The boards and some of the supporting kits range in price from $35 to about $199 and appear to be priced and targeted for the hobbyist. They variously come with open source distributions of Linux and Android, Ubuntu and sometimes with an RTOS. The x86 variants can also load Windows. But the real value here is not trying to produce a credit card-sized PC; it lies in the potential for embedded development. They are also associated with user communities who blog and share ideas, designs and support tips. A growing number of user designs are freely available on the Web.

At this point, the jury is out as to whether this “dot-org” board phenomenon will grow into a disruptive technology. That, however, could very well happen if one or more large semiconductor vendors see value in offering a selection of their processors that are appropriate for such applications on such low-cost prototyping platforms supported by the full open software/open hardware movements. These would of course have to be CPUs that meet the size, weight and power (SWaP) and cost characteristics for use in small, mobile applications. Alternatively, an entrepreneur or two could contract with semiconductor vendors to offer lines of such products.

Again, no one expects that a “dot-org” board trade will destroy anything; if it happens it will fill a need that has not otherwise been satisfied. There is of course still plenty of need for the various small form factors, SBCs, COM modules, backplane designs and the wealth of other established technologies. Development decisions are still driven by cost, expected volume, “build or buy” and a host of other considerations. It just appears from this perspective that there are rumblings of opportunity to help developers faced with a more recent set of decisions and options as we move further into a completely connected and intelligent world.