Posted by Allen Watson on July 19, 2011
If you are British or are an aficionado of British TV, you will be familiar with the TV series ‘Doctor Who’. If you’re both, and like me, of a certain age, you may recall a childhood of watching this show from behind the sofa. It’s the longest running science-fiction TV show in the world and it’s scary. One of the key props in the story is the Tardis, a time-machine disguised as an old-fashioned Police Telephone Box. (It’s a long story why it’s a rather incongruous Police Box.) The Tardis allows the good Doctor to travel back & forwards in time. As I look at the Embedded Software industry today, I was thinking, what if I accompanied the Doctor back to ten years ago. How did the industry look compared to now? How would it look ten years into the future?
Going back ten years ago is easy, of course, as I was there. The largest independent embedded software vendor for microprocessors was Wind River Systems with its VxWorks RTOS and there was also Green Hills Software, with their well respected compiler and debugger. The embedded part of Microsoft was touting its Win CE operating system and MontaVista was out pushing the merits of Linux for embedded systems. Besides these medium-sized companies, there was, as there is today, many smaller firms with tools, operating systems and middleware. Companies such as Ashling Microsytems, Express Logic, Interniche, Lauterbach, Macraigor and many more. So, how is that different than today? Well, on the surface, it’s not actually that different. All the companies named above are still around and the smaller companies, for the most part, are still around, too. And, it’s still a highly fragmented industry. But, it’s not like the EDA industry.
The EDA industry is famous for multiple startups jockeying for position to be acquired by the ‘big three’ of EDA. In contrast, the Embedded Software industry doesn’t really have a ‘big three’ and there are not a lot of acquisitions that go on (or IPO’s). It’s highly fragmented with lots of small companies that have been around for a long time, along with some medium-sized companies, none of which dominate the business. Of course, one change is that two of the larger companies were acquired by semiconductor companies. Wind River Systems was acquired by Intel in 2009, followed by MontaVista being acquired by Cavium in the same year.
So, it looks like there never will be a ‘big three’ in the Embedded Software industry. But, if we got back into the Tardis and jumped ten year ahead, what would it look like? Would all the significant software vendors have been acquired by semiconductor companies? And, what is the right place for tomorrow’s software vendors? Is it with the semis or is it with the EDA companies or simply on their own? So far, only one EDA company has made any significant embedded software vendor acquisitions and it has been doing that for a long time. Will the others follow? Should they follow? And what will the users of embedded software & tools think?
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.