06 October 2009
Connectivity, the new essential service
One of the legacies of having an engineering background is that, inevitability, you'll be called on to sort out computer problems for friends and family. Like most engineers, I've been doing that for years while modestly accepting misdirected accolades like 'guru' and 'wizard' – which I'm not.
But sorting out computer problems, even at this casual level, has notably changed. The capabilities and engineering sophistication of PCs might have romped along at the frenetic and expected pace of Moore's Law, but most computer issues that now crop up don't reflect this linear improvement in technology. As a testament to its importance, the majority involve a problem with connectivity to the outside world. It's because in reality, this is now the most significant and important development in a PC's capability – and in fact, just about any electronic device or product.
The point is illustrated by a recent problem with an offspring's computer, which was unhelpfully reported as 'broken' and 'doesn't work'. As it turned out, everything was fine – no flames, no fumes and no fragments – except for internet access, which meant the machine was cut off from the outside world. "See dad, it doesn't work!" was the response. It did, an hour later, when our ISP had dealt with that great oxymoron of 'unplanned maintenance'.
The message here is that connectivity is now a fundamental part of how things work, or should work. Most people, and in particular those born in the last 20 years or so, don't regard connectivity as an enhancement or add on feature to their electronic lives. It's simply a universal and essential service, as you'd expect of the electricity or water supply, and things need to be plugged into it to work.
Internet access is only one manifestation of growing and ubiquitous connectivity. When electronic products can be connected to wider ecosystems, the functionality of that device is dramatically expanded by the external data exchange services it taps into. All applications from industrial and military through to medical and consumer fundamentally benefit from connectivity, which might be via wireless systems (Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Bluetooth, and so on) or direct wired connections (Ethernet, CAN bus, USB, and a host of industrial-strength variants).
With all applications, what's most important is not the actual connectivity mechanisms – the wires, circuitry and protocols that make it possible – but the software smarts behind that connectivity. In the same way as we derive value from a connected PC, the actual benefit this delivers to an end user is determined by application software. When developing electronic products, regardless of their area of application, we need to be able to focus first and foremost on that application software, then later, worry about what hardware and connectivity systems are needed to allow the application to do its job.
This is the reverse of a traditional hardware-first design methodology. It requires an electronics design system that supports a software-centric approach and provides ready-to-go, multi-domain IP blocks (where each includes hardware, embedded hardware and software) that can be dropped into a design at will. Valuable design time can then be spent on developing unique electronic products that tap into today's ubiquitous connectivity to deliver an end user experience that goes way beyond the physical device itself.
Rob Evans, technical editor, Altium