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When ignorance really is bliss

The other day in a conversation with a power engineer I had cause to reflect on how little I really know about power generation. As an electronics engineer I make use of mains power as a matter of course, but I actually know very little about the technology and challenges associated with making it and delivering it to every home in the country. I have a broad understanding, but I certainly couldn't design or build most of the devices necessary to do it.

Does my ignorance of the subject really matter, though? I know enough to manipulate the power that comes out of the socket and modify it to suit the needs of the electronic devices I design – or I use a plug pack! So as an electronics engineer I really have no need to understand the infrastructure that sits behind that wall socket. As long as there's one available, I can power my device.

That's the nature of a ubiquitous utility. You don't have to do any specialized design work to access it. You don't have to have any specialized knowledge to make your device work with it. And if it wasn't like that, there would be no electronics industry to speak of, let alone the plethora of devices that dominate our lives. If everyone had to design and supply a generation system and fuel to go with every product they sold, the market penetration for electronic gadgets sure would be blunted.

The past three decades have seen an important new infrastructure develop in the form of the internet. Once a tool for the military and academics, the internet has expanded to create near universal communication and connectivity throughout the developed world.

While the increase in coverage and access to the internet has been phenomenal, we are still in the earliest stages of harnessing this vast potential of this resource. The basic infrastructure is in place, but as yet we are only utilizing it in a crude and ad hoc way.

One reason for this is that at present engineers have to grapple with the intricacies of connecting to the infrastructure for every device they design. They must build the low level connectivity each time they want to make use of the network in a design. And they need to know about how the internet works in order to build the back-end systems that their device will connect to. In other words, for a device to harness the power of the internet today an engineer or company must have the knowledge and expertise to design both electronics and the internet infrastructure and services used by them.

If we are to take electronics to the next level – and we must, because it's electronics that increasingly make the difference in our world today – we need to redefine electronics design to encompass both the devices we create, and the internet-based ecosystems that will support them. What's more, we need to develop a new generation of design tools that go beyond the limited scope of today's domain focused collection of applications.

The next generation of electronics design tools must be capable not only in the hardware and device software domains, but also in the internet applications domain. Device connectivity will be an in-built service, rather than something that needs to be designed. And connecting to web services will simply be a matter of ticking the options you want.

I expect that future generations of electronics engineers will have the same perspective on connecting their devices together via the internet as I do with connecting the power system: it's necessary, but I don't waste a lot of time implementing it. And really, that's the way it should be.


Rob Irwin, Altium
Rob Irwin holds a Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical) from the University of Sydney and has over 20 years experience in the electronic design industry including a role as Senior Electronics Test Engineer with the Australian Consumers' Association and several years as editor of Australian Electronics Engineering. Rob currently holds the position of Product Manager at Altium Limited.

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Rob Irwin

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