In the industrial computing industry there is a tendency to mergers and standardised hardware and software products. Does this evolution of the market mean we will end up with one single "Wintel"-like company without any further competition?
If you are looking back in electronic industrys history which was - and still is - a story of permanently increasing integration youll remember - if you are long enough in business - the trend in ICs from commodity products to customised or application specific ICs (ASICs). The advantage of ASICs is they fit perfect into their applications due to performance, size, and power comsumption but the disadvantage is the huge cost of development and its inflexibility to design changes which also results in additional cost (NRE). This means ASICs must be produced in very high volumes to become economical. If the application developed for or by one single user becomes a general one these devices turned into application specific standard products (ASSPs) and were used by all OEMs covering a dedicated market e.g. industrial control. This trend continued and nowadays the majority of ICs are to some extend ASSPs but nobody calls it application specific any longer - they became commodity products.
The same trend starts now on the next integration level - industrial computing. Industrial computer boards started as rugged versions of PC boards but are available nowadays in a variety of different form factors and functionality. This situation is comparable with the ASSPs years ago but there is one big difference " the software content. ICs are usually delivered without or with little software content. Unlike ICs industrial computer boards are delivered including big software content like real time operating systems (RTOS), APIs, and various peripheral functions. Due to the fact that suppliers of industrial computer boards do not have the appropriate software experience they work close together with manufacturers of RTOSes and related intellectual property (IP) to offer comprehensive solutions to their customers. This software is more and more standardised to work seamlessly together and can be reused to realise standard but modular computer products for wide variety of industrial applications.
Standardisation is also a topic for the "heart" of industrial computer boards - the microprocessor. There a several microprocessors in use on these boards to date. Beside the Intel x86-architecture there are PowerPCs, VIA processors and a few more. But since Intel introduced currently its Atom processor - the first processors from the company especially designed for embedded and industrial applications - experts are expecting that this processor could become the standard processor for industrial computing. It is high performance, low-power and will be available at least 7 years - essential for industrial applications. This could mean future boards would include one single processor type and just a single software content created with modules from a universal library.
You have also to take into account that there is also a concentration process going on between the suppliers of industrial computer boards. To mention just two examples - Kontron took over some of its competitors and the former German company OR industrial Computers were taken over by SBS and this company again by GE Fanuc. This tendency proves that in future only a few but big manufacturers could share the market for industrial computers with their standardised products. And if this trend goes on we could end up in a situation were a kind of "Wintel" company could dominate the market without any real competition. But for customers a situation like this is undesirable because competition drives innovation and the industrial computer market needs innovation to address future challenges.