The advent of Digitally-Controlled Power (DCP) in electronic equipment promises to bring the flexibility of software programmability to the traditionally hard-wired world of analog power control ICs and subsystems. However, the ascendance of DCP also could spur a battle over power Operating Systems (OSes) reminiscent of the market fight between Microsoft Corp.'s Windows and Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac OSes.
In today's electronic equipment world, the concepts of OSes and power systems seldom meet. But when viewed functionally, the hard-wired connections on today's analog power ICs constitute a type of power OS.
However, a hard-wired power OS is not reprogrammable"although it is possible to re-spin the mask used to produce the IC"and the architecture is just about as closed as the patent attorneys can make it. Analog IC suppliers often proudly refer publicly to their power ICs as "proprietary standard products." But because of the high price of these products, purchasers of these devices sometimes refer to them with names that cannot be repeated in this article.
Purchasers' language gets even more colorful if proprietary standard products don't quite meet all the needs of users' systems. When the best available standard proprietary IC just doesn't meet 100 percent of a system's needs, the purchaser has the opportunity"if he is lucky enough to be considered a major account"to meet with the supplier's design team in order to develop a custom version of the already proprietary IC. Some months and many more dollars later, with good luck and considerable design skill, the purchaser finally gets the power OS he needed in the first place.
Of course, this assumes that system design changes made in the meantime do not mandate alterations to the power OS.
Power analog IC suppliers often anticipate some of the hard-wired OS options that users may need and design the known alternatives into the silicon from the start. In this case, suppliers need only to make a metal mask change to connect the circuit, i.e. reprogram the power OS, to accommodate a purchaser's needs.
Suppliers call this a "lock." Users call it sole sourced and expensive.
There has got to be a better way to get power OSes to do the job required. DCP offers a better way.
iSuppli defines DCP as the use of ICs and software algorithms for system monitoring, internal and external communication and control of power systems. DCP ICs employ OSes that allow users to program their functionality.
The ideal DCP OS itself would be open, at least to certified users, in order to allow power architects maximum reasonable latitude to rapidly meet changing system power requirements. Such an OS also would have a friendly Graphical User Interface (GUI) that allows the system architect to work directly with the OS and manipulate the system and see in real time the Bode plots and S parameters that power engineers need.
DCP solutions emerging today utilize a variety of hardware, including MCUs, DSPs and programmable ASICs. They also employ a range of firmware, i.e. open vs. closed OS architectures, some with GUIs and others with not-so-friendly interfaces. The landscape of choices at this early date looks a little like the California gubernatorial recall ballot.
The good news is that just like in the battle between Macs vs. PC, or DOS vs. GUI, the user gets the ultimate vote on which approach to use. The winner may not be the very best OS or the very best hardware. Rather, the victor simply may be the most open and easy to use approach for an army of developers to realize the potential of DCP solutions.
DCP offers system developers flexibility and time-to-market advantages unattainable with today's hard-wired analog-only solutions for power management. DCP can drastically reduce the passive network shrubbery surrounding an analog-only solution, saving valuable space and simplifying place-and-route issues, which in turn may allow optimal placement for improved thermal and electrical performance.
However, the migration of power management to the digital realm is at a very early stage. There presently is no ideal power OS candidate on the ballot. Thus, a battle over OSes is looming.
Furthermore, the rise of DCP means that some of the incumbent suppliers of power ICs will lose their valuable position selling proprietary analog solutions. Thus, not everyone is welcoming DCP with open arms"and open architectures.
Nevertheless, the rise of DCP and the appearance of open power OSes is inevitable, as is the development of friendly GUIs, iSuppli predicts.
Gary Vick is a director of Advisory Services for iSuppli Corp. and manages the company's Power Technologies practice. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org