Why Google matters a lot to embedded designers

Hardware’s a commodity; differentiation is in the industrial design, the UI, the platform/enterprise software, or increasingly, in the system “connectedness” to all things Internet. The Google machine offers designers huge inspiration and direct benefit in all of these.

Even though this magazine is all about modular, embedded small form factors, I’ve got some tough love news for you guys. If you’re not Apple with worldwide, trendsetting industrial designs like the iPhone or iPad, chances are your end system is pretty “me too.” It’s probably an ugly shoebox, maybe painted a pretty teal or shiny black. Go ahead and write me nasty letters because I’m so mean, but then ask your customers and competitors if your systems are as sexy as anything from Apple. Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Like I said: Hardware’s a commodity when everyone uses the same Core i3/i5 or Atom CPUs from Intel, USB 3.0 controllers from TI (TUSB1310 SuperSpeed transceiver or TUSB8040 four-port hub), or VIA Nano X2 (two 64-bit cores). In fact, despite your form-factor selection, most hardware comes down to a microcontroller or CPU from ARM (et al), AMD (maybe their new Fusion T44R 1.2 GHz single-core will save the company, though it couldn’t save their CEO!), Freescale (QorIQ with AltiVec, anyone?), Intel, or VIA. And while I think Kontron’s new rugged Cobalt will make people squirm at Parvus, RTD, ADLINK, and even Curtiss-Wright – by the way, it was originally an AP Labs design: nice work, guys – the modular guts inside are COM Express and someone’s conveniently sized COTS Ethernet board. My point: Cobalt is neat enough to win designs, but maybe not competitively defensible long-term.

If you can’t differentiate with hardware, we’re down to the UI or the rest of the software. It’s the rare SFF vendor that creates panel PCs with an LCD and a custom interface. (Check out the reconstituted company IEE that I ran into at AFCEA West 2011.) Most SFFs ship headless and with Linux or some flavor of Windows, so the UI is decided by the PC market. If you’re still with me, I’ve argued that: 1. Hardware’s a commodity; most SFF companies don’t develop their own 2. UI or 3. software environment. SFF vendor Eurotech agrees with me, and last Fall launched their cloud-based services Everywhere Software Framework (ESF) via the Isidorey device cloud. They see profit in connected devices with distributed data management via technology and partnerships with companies like Google (their Apps Engine, specifically).

So that brings us (finally) to Google, SFFs, and why you need to include Google in your product’s design. Going from not-on-the-charts two years ago, the Android OS in smart phones outsold all others in Q4 2010 to hit 32.9 million handsets versus Nokia’s Symbian (31 million), says research firm Canalys. (To be fair, other analysts report similar results but different numbers.) Apple’s iOS on iPhones? 16.2 million. That’s 33%, 31%, 16%, and 14% (Google, Nokia, Apple, and RIM). Android’s up-and-coming Honeycomb release for tablets is optimized for larger, higher-res screens – the kind most panel PCs and POS terminals use in the SFF market. Listening yet?

Beyond Android, there’s the Chrome browser and similarly named OS. Microsoft long ago conceded that the way to the Internet is via the browser (wasn’t there some kind of legal thing in the ‘90s?), and device “connectedness” coupled with cloud computing makes the browser the window into the cloud. Virtualized servers with excess cycles increasingly relegate the connected embedded doodad to a “semi-smart” X-windows-like terminal with heavy-lift computation and graphics done in the cloud. Does Chrome affect your design by allowing a lower-performing processor that saves power? A Sandy Bridge Core i7 on conduction-cooled PC/104 is awesome, but is it necessary?

And finally, what about Google’s myriad other initiatives? Even though Google Documents (the poor man’s Office) or Google News may not affect your design, how might Maps or Earth do a mash-up with your system to solve your customers’ problems differently? Got a video-processing system? If so, can the facial recognition engine in Picasa or the image analysis of Google Goggles search enhance your platform? (In the DoD they call that digital reconnaissance.) Or can the follow-me VoIP phone number from Voice add multimedia IP connectivity to an otherwise “barely connected” embedded device? Just check out the potpourri of 47 products or categories at google.com/intl/en/options/. There are so many desktop, cloud, and mobile products aplenty that it should give savvy designers inspiration.

Now ask yourself: How can you differentiate your hardware using Google?

Chris A. Ciufo, Editor cciufo@opensystemsmedia.com