According to IDC Research, 15 billion (with a “b”) devices will be connected to the internet by the year 2015. That is a big jump from the estimated 3 billion today. When we talk about “connected devices” our minds immediately go to mobile devices. But to get to 15 billion, we need to think broader. A company recently introduced the “first” bathroom scale (www.withings.com) connected to the internet through the home WiFi. A few years ago who would have considered making the bathroom scale internet-ready? The notion of a connected device is expanding to include everyday household products. The possibilities are endless. So this raises the question – will your next product be connected to the internet?
The New Competitive Requirement
Connected devices were traditionally associated with “mobile” devices – smart phone, PDAs, etc. Tomorrow, connectivity will spread to non-mobile products. This connectivity trend is making internet connectivity the new competitive requirement. The proliferation of connected products over the next few years will move many standalone products to the status of antiquated or non-competitive.
The challenge that many companies face is the lack of connectivity expertise and associated intellectual property (IP). Once the preserve of large companies with the resources to acquire the talent and tools, connectivity will become available to small and mid-sized companies who will be able to productize it. Connectivity is becoming mainstream and will be a competitive requirement just as USB or Secured Digital High Capacity (SDHC) cards are today.
The trick is in managing the design complexity, even as the opportunities beckon.
Connectivity includes GPS, Ethernet, WiFi and 3G technologies. Consider a company building exercise bikes and someone comes up with the cool idea of connecting the bike to the internet. Similar discussions are held at the bathroom scale company. Just think about all the possibilities that such a product combination can deliver – personal workout web page, workout statistics (time, calories, distance, etc) on the bike and on the run - all automatically uploaded to the internet. No argument that this is a great idea.
Another benefit is the ability to run remote diagnostics or update software remotely. Product defects can be quickly diagnosed and repaired. Software enhancements can be easily distributed. This is a win-win scenario for the manufacturer and the customer.
The challenge is building the connectivity into each device or product and mastering the software required to connect it. Implementing a connected device will require at least a PCB, an embedded processor and possibly an FPGA. Then the WiFi IP will have to be researched and acquired. This will include the software device drivers up to the TCP/IP layer. Royalty considerations are also a factor. The IP will typically come from multiple vendors and pose integration challenges. As you can see this starts getting complicated for a company that builds bathroom scales or toys.
Platform Based Connectivity Design
A connectivity design solution requires the unification of hardware, software and IP in a manner that makes it accessible to the majority of designers. Just as a USB connection is now considered a common feature, so will connectivity.
A platform architecture is unique in that it is layered with a single data model adjacent to a data management layer as the foundation. The data management foundation hosts the authoring tools for multiple domains – PCB, FPGA and embedded software development (Figure 1). This is in contrast to the tool-chain, which is based on tools with each tool having a unique data model. The platform-based solution presents a holistic view of the design to the design team as a hierarchical project that includes PCB, FPGA and embedded software development.
Another unique characteristic of the platform is the inclusion of IP. So WiFi, Ethernet and 3G hardware and software IP are part of the design solution just as a USB or SPI peripherals. The connection IP is presented in an IP palette that the user can drag and drop. Not only is the IP included but integrated in a manner such that once the connection IP is added to the design, the software stacks are automatically created up to the TCP/IP layer (Figure 2). The Software Platform Builder creates the software stack based on the IP in the design and then compiles the stacks into libraries and header files. The machine generated libraries and header files are used by the software developer to easily utilize the connection technology via high-level function calls. The design can then be downloaded into a prototype board and the software debugged from the same platform design solution.
Connectivity is Mainstream
If you haven’t considered connecting your product to the internet, it may be time. The adoption of connectivity in the broad market is ramping quickly. This broad adoption moves product connectivity from a competitive advantage to a competitive requirement. It will present some challenges in domain expertise and tool flow to the product development teams. The platform based design process will have significant advantages over the traditional tool-chain in building connected devices. The integrated IP in particular will mitigate many of the challenges. It is a connected world! Are you ready?
Bob Potock (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Director of Technical Marketing for Altium North America and has been involved in board-based system and FPGA design throughout most of his career. He has held positions in software/hardware engineering, marketing and field operations at companies that include Mentor Graphics, AT&T Bell Labs, Intel, Burroughs, Cadnetix and NeoCAD. Bob holds a BSEE from Case Western Reserve University and an MBA from Regis University. He joined Altium in 2009.