You know that you need to get a quality product to market. What you may not realize is how much timing can impact profitability - and why choice of RTOS makes a difference.
The product development cycle typically starts off with a lot of meetings centered around defining requirements: What kind of a product do you want to design? What are the differentiating features? How small should it be? How light, how fast, how efficient?
Marketing usually weighs in with figures on how much they think they can charge, and how many units can be sold, which helps define the budget. Somewhere in there is a discussion about how long the whole development process will take and when the product may be released for sale.
You know you need to get a quality product to market as soon as possible, but delays that slip in as a result of adding new features, losing track of requirements, and unforeseen difficulty implementing design features render that quality product far less profitable and successful than it would otherwise be.
“In the electronics industry, introducing a product nine to 12 months late can cost it fifty percent of its potential revenues,” say George Stalk and Thomas Hout in Competing Against Time. Fifty percent. That's a significant hit. But delays in time to market create other, even more sobering problems, the duo points out. “A long development process exposes the project to the risk of changes in the market and environment,” they add.
In part, delays can make the difference between holding first-mover advantage versus launching a product in a market that's already partially subscribed. The challenges go beyond that, however - consumer needs and expectations may have moved on. A 3G phone, however good, launched once 4G models have been released simply will not accrue the same amount of revenues. “Reducing elapsed time can make the critical difference between success and failure," says the synopsis. "Give customers what they want when they want it - or the competition will.”
Time to market is critical
Being late erodes the addressable market for your product. If you initially target a market segment of ten million units with a market lifetime of 18 months and you’re six months late, the addressable market will shrink. Not only will the market be smaller, the competition will be much more intense because competitors will have an established base to sell from, even as the early growth curve starts to flatten. Finally, being late by definition means that the development process took longer than anticipated, which makes the cost of designing and commercializing the product itself far more costly as a result of the additional developer salaries and overhead that result. But the biggest financial consequence of such delays is not the extra cost of development, but the cost of lost revenue.
The chart below in Figure 1 below, produced by Kim Rowe (and published in an EETimes’ article in 2010) to illustrate the effect of time to market on aggregate sales volume, shows a product-adoption curve over time. The area under the curve represents the total number of product units that can be sold. Being late erodes the market in two ways. First, you don't get to sell the product for as long a period of time. Second, you lose market share early and can't regain it later, so the number of available prospects is smaller.Figure 1: A product brought to market late (orange) accrues lower sales volume (green band) over the entire commercial lifecycle. 
The Role of the RTOS
What can developers do to help bring better products to market faster? Design teams are in control of one critical aspect of time to market, and that is completing their development project on time. Once a project has been defined and a schedule prepared, many aspects of product launch swing into action, all coordinated with project completion. If the project is delayed, the entire development plan suffers, and the product will be late to market.
Development projects for embedded systems products often include selection and use of a real-time operating system (RTOS) for the product. The RTOS is then embedded into the final product for production. Does the RTOS have an effect on the project completion, and on the ultimate product quality? Most certainly, based not only on an understanding of how RTOSs work and how they can be used by applications, but also from data gathered and analyzed by Embedded Market Forecasters (EMF) of Boston in their annual survey of embedded developers. 
EMF annually surveys developers for information about their projects to determine types of RTOSes used, development timelines, product success, etc. A tabulation of the most recent (2012) data gathered from more than 500 embedded developers revealed that, on average, 35.2% of their projects were completed behind schedule. However, not all projects fared equally. (Parenthetically, projects that used ThreadX RTOS performed the best, with a 78.6% rate of completion on-or-ahead-of-schedule). Clearly, using the right RTOS can significantly benefit a project’s likelihood of finishing on time (Table 1 below)
Table 1: The effect of RTOS on development schedule and cost
Ensuring product quality
Of course, getting to market quickly is meaningless unless you deliver a quality, reliable product. Latent defects can result in recalls, excessive warranty costs, and a degraded brand. The drawbacks don’t have to be that extreme to impact success, though. All it takes to erode your market share is the release of a competitive product that offers better performance than yours. Here, too, the right RTOS can help you develop a better product that’s more profitable (Table 2 below
Table 2: comparison of product quality design results for different RTOSes
Development teams always make trade-offs among factors including features, performance, development time, and budget. It's tempting to spend as little as possible for development, but that can be "penny wise and pound foolish." Using the best tools, whether the RTOS, compiler, or other development tools, might cost more than using "free" or less costly alternatives, but the data shows that the nominal savings typically represents only a fraction of the resulting cost of being late to market or delivering a product with noncompetitive performance or quality.
The decision regarding where to spend your limited development budget—and indeed, how large a development budget you need— has to be made in the context of the overall success of the product and the enterprise. Use the tools that will enable you to bring your product to market as quickly as possible, and to make your product as successful as possible - not the tools that cost the least, or that are provided for free for use with your hardware. If that “free” RTOS or toolset led to a slower development project and a delayed time to market, even if it saved you $100,000 in development cost, would you still consider it a bargain?
Another way to look at this issue is to compare against other industries. Take construction, for example. Would a contractor building a skyscraper outfit his workers with $50 shovels rather than use a $250,000 earthmover to dig the foundation? Would he buy them $10 hammers instead of $50 nail guns? In cases like these, success is aided by using the best tools available, not necessarily the least expensive. Embedded developers would be well served to follow similar practices when choosing an RTOS - and other development tools as well. Choose the one that best enables fast time-to-market and best performance, not the one that might be less costly or "free."
When it comes to profitability and market share, time to market is critical. Product quality is critical. The choice of RTOS plays a fundamental role in both. The RTOS affects project completion, development cost, and overall performance. It’s important to choose the right one. Don't be penny wise and pound foolish; make a better, more successful product!
1. G. Stalk and T. Hout, Competing Against Time, Simon & Schuster (1990).
2. Time to market is a critical consideration, Kim Rowe, 2010:
3. Electronic Market Forcasters Annual Survey, 2011
John A. Carbone, vice president of marketing for Express Logic, has 35 years’ experience in real-time computer systems and software, ranging from embedded system developer and FAE to vice president of sales and marketing. Mr. Carbone has a BS degree in mathematics from Boston College.