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Survey Says: The Commercial RTOS Business is Doomed

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018 by Michael Barr

Nearly two decades years ago I was the moderator of an interesting Embedded Systems Conference panel discussion titled “The Great RTOS Debate: Buy or Roll Your Own?” At that time, near the turn of the century, the market for commercial real-time operating systems (RTOSes) was growing rapidly year over year.

The big trend then was away from custom-written “proprietary” kernels toward commercial RTOSes typically licensed with a per unit royalty. From 1997 until their merger in 2000, Wind River and Integrated System together dominated this part of the market. According to surveys taken at the time, either VxWorks or pSOS was the operating system of choice for about 1 in 4 new embedded systems designs.

As embedded Linux entered the market in full and that merger took place, the market was divided roughly as follows: 39% no OS, 31% commercial RTOS, 18% proprietary OS, and 12% Linux.

The selection of operating systems by embedded systems designers has changed considerably since then. According to a preliminary analysis of data collected in Barr Group’s 2018 Embedded Systems Safety & Security Survey there are still quite a few new systems that run “no operating system” on their primary processor. However, this is down from 39% to just 22%. Use of proprietary operating systems is also down about half over the intervening 18 years, from 18% to just 8%.

The most popular category of actual operating system is now Linux at 22%, which is a change from prior years when “RTOS” (an aggregate of those paying for a commercial RTOS and those provided an operating system from chip vendor, which now ranks behind Linux at 19%) was most popular. Following ever more closely on the heels of those “commercial” RTOSes are the open source operating systems (e.g., FreeRTOS) that lack licensing fees.

We can get some sense of the range in the architecture of embedded systems by comparing the rankings of the five most popular operating system choices on the primary processor as the total number of processors goes up. As shown in the table below, the percentage of designers writing their own “proprietary” operating system is about the same (7-9%) regardless of processor count. But Linux clearly becomes a much more popular choice (climbs from 11% to 32%) as the number of processors increases, while “open source” and “no operating system” drop in popularity.


But it’s also worth looking at the timeline trend over these years, as I have assembled in the following graph from survey data compiled from 2005-2014 by Embedded.com and in the last three years by Barr Group.


What I make of all of this is that those who depend for their livelihood on operating system licensing fees from designers of embedded systems should start looking for other sources of income.

What other trends do you see?

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