Archive for March, 2003

Moving Targets

Monday, March 3rd, 2003 Michael Barr

There are currently so many interesting operating systems and alternatives that it’s hard to choose—as we must for each project—just one. Within the priority-based preemptive category, you can choose based on worst-case latency, source code availability, upfront and/or recurring cost, memory usage, API/features, and numerous other criteria. Indeed, the realm of possible price/feature combinations has fragmented the market into many tiny niches.

Though there are a handful of well-known names that have the bulk of the market tied up, a sizeable number of smaller RTOS providers do quite a nice business on just a tiny fraction of total market share. And as the demand for embedded operating systems continues to accelerate, these smaller vendors need not even hold their market share numbers to continue to increase profits. That’s good—because they will continue to lose market share.

There are a lot of forces that will shape the RTOS marketplace going forward—as it goes even more toward the big guys. Not the least of these factors is that more of us will go off-the-shelf. Among subscribers to Embedded Systems Programming magazine, for example, the percentage using no OS or a proprietary alternative has fallen from 38% to about 18% in just the past five years. Extrapolating, perhaps we’ll all be using off-the-shelf OS code by 2007.

Competition from “desktop-lite” operating systems has also picked up. There are a large number of embedded designs that look (or can look) an awful lot like a PC inside, benefit from the low component costs in that market, and no more than dabble in the realm of real-time. What used to be a small ROM-DOS market has morphed into today’s WinCE/XP and Linux market—almost entirely in the last three years. In 2002, some 17% of you fell into that category; I suspect it’s not a coincidence that x86 architectures continued to dominate the list of 32-bit processor choices.

And then there’s consolidation. Though the pace of consolidation has slowed with the business cycle, the effects continue to be felt. Mostly it was the vendors of 32-bit solutions that picked up 8- and 16-bit competitors and debugging tools when times were good—so they could offer one-stop shopping. An up-and-coming Linux player even spent some of its paper wealth to acquire a commercial RTOS vendor for that same purpose. To compete, a large commercial vendor picked up an open source, though non-Linux, OS. When the buying resumes, as it surely will, where will it ultimately end?

Several of the technologies positioned to profit from these trends are not what we traditionally think of as “embedded.” Microsoft, which—love ‘em or hate ‘em—correctly understands they must make it in the embedded space to stay relevant in the coming decade, is trying hard to find the right combination of OS features and vertical markets. In many of these markets, they’re competing directly against the open source alternatives—and apparently losing in some. According to a recent article in EE Times, Linux is also beating out traditional RTOSes in key markets like consumer electronics.

Of all the traditional vendors, Wind River is probably in the best position to compete with these market forces and survive. We are fortunate in the embedded space to have lots of choice when it comes to operating systems. But the future may hold far less technological alternatives. It’s not clear to me that QNX, VxWorks, Nucleus, or any other RTOS is really distinguishable from another in the boardroom—or that the smaller players have enough to gain by staying in the business longer term. What do you think?