Embedded Systems Rule the Earth

It is estimated (for example, by WSTS) that 9 billion processors were manufactured last year. That’s a 50% jump from the pre-2001 peak (i.e., prior to the Dot Com bubble crash). This is quite an impressive growth rate when considered in light of the financial market indices; DJIA and S&P500 have only recently come back to their pre-2001 peaks while Nasdaq remains solidly underwater.

Part of the reason for this is that there is growth in sales of the most visible computers. PCs, Macs, and other general-purpose computers sell in the 100-200 million unit per year range. And these generally each contain several DSPs and microcontrollers in the peripherals attached to the main microprocessor. Being generous then, perhaps 10% of the world’s annual processor production can be explained by general-purpose computer sales.

However, the bulk of the growth is happening in the field of invisible computers; that is, processors embedded within other kinds of products–from cell phones to appliances to medical devices. Every year, as the price of basic computing power goes down, new applications emerge at the low end–in products that didn’t historically have processors inside them. For example, Freescale has noticed a recent trend like this in mechanical systems and launched several marketing efforts (see, Mechatropolis.com and their own microsite) to reach mechanical engineers needing processors for the first time. Texas Instruments is focusing its microcontroller marketing efforts on a similar trend in medical devices.

Although an article on the “invisble processors” phenomenon at ExtremeTech is several years out of date, I still value its analogy of embedded systems as insects. In biology, it is well known that insects far outnumber birds, fish, mammals, and all the other “visible” life on Earth. It seems that in the world of computers, embedded systems are the invisible class that outnumbers all others. And like insects, embedded systems come in millions of shapes and sizes.

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