Configurable Thoughts


My Ecosystem is better than yours…

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…