Jeff Bier’s Impulse Response—Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Submitted by Jeff Bier on Wed, 05/22/2013 - 22:01

In my December column, I observed that smartphones and tablets are starting to be used in places where purpose-built embedded systems once reigned, such as point-of sale terminals. At home, for example, I have a small Android tablet that I use as an Internet audio player. And my local sandwich shop uses iPads as self-service ordering and payment terminals.

When I first began thinking about this phenomenon approximately a year ago, I thought it was an interesting trend that might someday become important. Now, I'm convinced this is one of the most important trends in the electronics industry, and that it's going to be very big, very soon.

In some cases, the smartphones we carry with us will replace single-purpose products, as we already see happening with point-and-shoot cameras and GPS navigators. In other cases, smartphones or tablets will be drafted to perform functions that previously would have been performed by purpose-built devices, like the sandwich shop ordering terminals. I'm most interested in 'the latter set of cases', because they present important opportunities -- as well as threats -- for a very wide range of electronic systems developers.

Many of the "smart devices" that are becoming increasingly popular -- from smart baby monitors to smart thermostats to smart remote controls for our home entertainment systems -- have feature requirements that are quite well matched with the capabilities of today's smartphones and tablets: powerful processors, a range of sensors, a touchscreen with graphics, and a variety of wireless connections. There are strong disincentives for designing a custom platform with features similar to those of a smartphone or tablet -- most notably the time, cost and risk associated with putting together a sophisticated and complex system that largely repeats what others have already done. And, smartphones and tablets continue to get more capable, less expensive and more energy efficient at a rapid pace -- driven by market sizes, intense competition, and massive investments by SoC and system suppliers.

Today, a respectable smartphone can be purchased for about $200 (retail, quantity one, without a carrier subsidy), and that figure is rapidly heading toward $100. In many cases, it's going to be tough to justify designing a purpose-built device that delivers less capability for a higher price. Instead, new systems will increasingly be based directly on smartphones and tablets -- sometimes with different packaging (such as a rugged enclosure for a factory application), and sometimes with added peripherals (such as a larger screen).

Another key factor contributing to the repurposing of smartphones and tablets for embedded applications is energy efficiency. Designers of smartphones and tablets -- and their suppliers -- invest tens of millions of dollars in improving energy efficiency to extend battery life. That same energy efficiency can also benefit line-powered products. I'm reminded of a hotel I visited last year, where a digital sign outside each meeting room announced which meeting was taking place within. Inside each of these signs, a cooling fan could be heard. Really? You need a cooling fan for a digital sign? Not these days, you don't. Replace the guts of that digital sign with a tablet, and you have a smaller, quieter, less expensive, more energy efficient and more reliable product. (And one that has built-in battery backup to keep it running when line power fails.)

Software development infrastructure is another dimension that favors developing a product based on a smartphone or tablet, rather than custom hardware. Ten years ago, a basic software development tool chain (compiler, linker, debugger), some software component libraries, and a real-time executive of some sort were all that was needed for a typical embedded system. These days, the table stakes are much higher, with complex network protocols, sophisticated operating systems, and powerful APIs increasingly de rigeuer. Again, because of their huge volumes (and the huge numbers of application developers), smartphones and tablets tend to outstrip other embeddable platforms in terms of the quality and quantity of software development infrastructure.

In one sense, using general-purpose hardware platforms in place of purpose-built designs is not a new phenomenon. After all, personal computers have been used inside a variety of dedicated systems for decades, in applications from video surveillance to lab instruments. But because mobile devices are so much smaller, cheaper, and energy efficient compared to PCs, the opportunities to use mobile devices in this way are orders of magnitude larger.

I believe these factors are going to have a profound impact on the electronics industry in the next few years. There will be fewer opportunities to create new hardware platforms for niche applications, but more opportunities to innovate more quickly, leveraging smartphones and tablets and their associated infrastructure. More and more new products will, in one way or another, leverage smartphones and tablets. The "tricorder"-like device being developed by start-up Scanadu is a great example of this: it extends the capabilities of the smartphone with the addition of sensors and a special-purpose form-factor, while leveraging the capabilities for things the smartphone already does well. I believe this is what the future of the electronics industry looks like. We must change or be changed.

Jeff Bier is president of BDTI and founder of the Embedded Vision Alliance. Post a comment here or send him your feedback at

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