Posted by Allen Watson on March 31, 2011
According to Wikipedia, the term ‘ecosystem’, was coined in 1930 by Roy Clapham. He was referring to the physical & biological aspects of the environment. Today, ecosystem gets (over)used in many other arenas, including high technology, of course. It’s especially prevalent when referring to the companies that support a particular CPU architecture, chip or IP core. So, are these ecosystems of any value? Why do they exist? Is the term ‘ecosystem’ really annoying when used in this context?
A marketing wit once remarked to me that his partner program (or ecosystem) was a ‘Drive-By Logo Program’. He meant that the main objective appeared to be to seek out company logos and put them on the web site. There was no real value in it for his company and, indeed, no value whatsoever for their partners or customers. These days, customers are wise to this kind of thing and want to see co-operation between companies that actually provide them some value. However, it is tempting for customers to compare vendors by the size of their ecosystem. But, that can be very misleading.
Embedded systems are so different that having the right ecosystem supporting your CPU choice is key. If you’re building a Set Top Box, then you want support from the companies that provide key technology for that application. If you are building a device for the medical market, the supporting companies may well be very different. Convergence is happening, of course. I have an iPhone in my pocket and an Apple TV box at home. One is a mobile device and the other is plugged-in. One is small, the other connects to the biggest device I have, my TV. But, there are many commonalities in the software and, in this case, even the hardware – Apple’s A4 chip. But, embedded systems still span a wide range of functions and requirements.
The key issue is to understand the additional hardware and software you need for the product you’re building. There’ll be nice-to-haves, but there will also be must-haves. For example, if you’re building a device with audio for the consumer market, must-haves may be support for audio standards from Dolby, DTS or SRS Labs. For safety critical applications, a safety-certified RTOS may be a requirement. It’s also true that you don’t need ten suppliers of TCP/IP protocol software to support you. More is not necessarily better. But, a few is good, to give customers some choice and leverage with vendors.
So, take a close look at what you’re building and an even closer look at that ecosystem…
At the age of 10 Mike begged his father to get him a computer. Never mind that at the time computers were the size of a large office and cost millions of dollars. Yes, Mike is no spring chicken and he didn’t get the computer, although his father did give him an abacus telling him that it would enable him to use the computer that he already had between his ears, which was not appreciated. Whether it was due to the trauma that resulted from using an abacus or just Mike’s love of anything electronic he has spent the last 30 years or so designing, building, and programming computers, microprocessors, and microcontrollers and developing applications that run on them. And his fascination continues with the definition of new processors and architectures in his search for the holy grail of computing: infinite performance at zero power consumption. Statistically speaking he is convinced it is just a matter of time.
Allen started in the ‘semiconductor IP industry’ before it was called the ‘semiconductor IP industry’. Back then, it was about ‘megafunctions’, ‘megablocks’ or MegaMacros™ (as trademarked by the pioneering UK IP company Allen was with… no, not that UK company). The biggest of these ‘mega’ things was an 8051! Today, of course, IP blocks are much larger and much more complex. And, it’s about the software, as well as the hardware. It’s also about working with a set of partners, sometimes called an ecosystem or community. Allen has been doing that for many years and is enjoying working with old and new friends on the ARC processor ecosystem.