14 January 2010

Kindling the fires of innovation

Down here in Australia there's been a flurry of media interest in Amazon's new version of its Kindle DX electronic book reader device.

It's not primarily with the device itself, but because with it, Amazon are opening up the device – and the ecosystem behind it – to Australian (and other non-US) residents. We'll be able to do what US residents have been doing for ages – buy a book online from Amazon and download it directly to the Kindle without the need for an intermediate stop at our PC on the way through.

This concept may seem on the surface like a fairly trivial thing, but it is the tip of the global technological iceberg that the electronics industry and engineers need to pay some attention to, or risk a Titanic-like encounter that will leave many in the industry fighting over the lifeboats.

In talking to some of my US colleagues, one of the most compelling things about the Kindle is that it opens up the vast resources of Amazon's online emporium without the need to use a PC, or indeed to find a WiFi hotspot or insert and configure any other form of connection device. You just turn the Kindle on and it connects – piggybacking on the US mobile phone network. From a users perspective, it just works.

The Kindle itself may ultimately succeed or fail in the market, but the concept that it represents – that of an internet of connected devices – is one that is going to define a new chapter in the evolution of electronics and redefine the impact of electronics on society.

The humble PC (or Mac, if you're that way inclined) is losing its position of dominance as our main gateway into the vast electronic network we call the Internet. It's being replaced by devices that tap into the Internet directly, and through pathways transparent to the end user. The value of these devices lies primarily in the ecosystem that sits beyond them, not solely within the silicon and copper that give physical form to the device. And it is this fact that points us to the need to adjust the way we think about design electronic devices.

Connectivity is no longer simply a feature or specification of a product, it is central to the core functionality of the device. Rather than start defining an electronic product by asking what it does, we need to think first about how and what it connects to. Moreover, in the future the infrastructure and ecosystem to which a device connects will define the true value of the product to the end user more than the electronics in it.

Our current electronic design methodologies and tools are focused on producing devices to which we add connectivity and intelligence. To produce the billions of connected devices of the future we will need to rethink our design strategies and think first and foremost about designing the intelligence and connectedness of a device, and then assembling a physical device to carry it. It may seem like a subtle mind shift, but it represents a seismic transformation to how the next generation of electronics engineers will work – and play!

Rob Irwin, Product Marketing Manager, Altium Ltd

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