SAN JOSE, Calif. With 2008 marking the 20th anniversary of the Embedded Systems Conference, ESC has become an industry "essential." The question is how its role might shift in the next 20 years as virtually all design becomes embedded design.
Merely identifying embedded systems has become harder. There's an embedded system hidden under the hood of almost every gadget on which consumers rely. While desktop machines are based on well-known microprocessors, it's tougher to get a handle on the myriad embedded devices that form the soul of today's applications.
Several ESC keynote speakers arrived at a common conclusion: If 20 years ago 2 percent of processors were dedicated to desktop applications and 98 percent to embedded designs, 20 years from now that ratio will be 1:99. "We'll want more and more of the processing power in 20 years," said Nick Tredennick, technology analyst for Gilder Publishing. "The only difference will be that everything embedded will be terabyte-based, instead of today's gigabyte world."
Tredennick's long industry experience is a bellwether. While at Motorola, he designed the microprocessor that became the central engine for the original Apple Macintosh. He was once chief scientist at Altera, and he was named an IEEE fellow for his contributions to microprocessor design. "We'll see a $1 trillion semiconductor market in 2028, and for all practical purposes it will all be embedded," Tredennick told his ESC audience. "So I'm not sure if the 'embedded' nomenclature will survive."
That would suit Dinkumware Ltd. president P.J. Plauger, who delivered keynote remarks via video. Plauger's company licenses standards-conforming C and C++ libraries and online documentation that he developed. "Over the years, C and C++ have become the standard development languages," he said. "Without them, we would not have an embedded industry."
Plauger and fellow ESC keynoter Jim Ready, creator of the first commercial real-time OS, said software development hurdles for multicore processors are the biggest challenge embedded designers face today and in the next five years.
"When we invented the category of embedded Linux commercialization in 1999 by founding MontaVista Software, nobody believed the Linux operating system could be applied to the embedded systems market," said Ready. He predicted that the road to multicore processing is paved with similar skepticism that can and will be disspelled by embedded desigers.
In a video keynote, Bjarne Stroustrup, designer and original implementer of C++, hailed the standardization of C++ as a recognized development language. "My aim was to design a language in which I could write programs that were both efficient and elegant," Stroustrup said. "Many languages force you to choose between those two alternatives."
With regard to multicore applications for C++, Stroustrup, who teaches at Texas A&M University and is engaged in research into parallel and distributed programming, said, "We're looking at ways of using program transformation to support distributed computing, optimization and embedded systems programming."
In another video presentation, Paul Saffo, who is on a research sabbatical from the Institute for the Future, offered this prognostication: "We are moving toward a world of 'smartifacts'; that is, all our actions will be guided by embedded processors hidden from us but influencing every aspect of our lives." Like other keynoters, Saffo said he believes that "the arrival of multicore technologies will have the biggest impact on developing smart embedded systems."
He advised his ESC audience to heed the lessons of the past when looking for solutions to seemingly insurmountable hurdles such as multicore parallel processing. "History doesn't repeat itself," he said, citing an aphorism commonly attributed to Mark Twain, but "it sometimes rhymes."