Embedded is cool (and getting even cooler)

By Paul Anderson

P.anderson When people ask me what I do, I never know how to answer the question. Most people state their occupation. But, does that define what we do? I usually respond with something cheeky like “metabolize,” or “provide for those around me” or “go running or fly airplanes any chance I get.” But, usually people want to know what you do for a living. I usually get stumped when they ask that particular question.

I asked my youngest child what he thought I did for a living. He said “play with computers all day,” which is not entirely inaccurate. I asked my oldest, and he said “fly airplanes” (again, I do fly a lot of airplanes, but unfortunately I spend most of my time as a passenger rather than a pilot). My pets would say my entire existence is dedicated to providing them food and entertainment (obviously they have figured something out). My wife would say that I type on the computer, talk on the phone, go to meetings, and spend way too much time in airplanes and at hotels. Although accurate, it doesn’t get at the core of what I do.

When I try to explain to people what I do in any detail, after a minute or so I see their eyes glaze over. I have taken to just saying “I’m in the software business.” I can usually get away with that, but sometime people actually want to know more.

If I say something like “I work with a team of people to create Linux-based optimized commercial software solutions used in the embedded industry,” I definitely get a blank look. In one attempt to explain to my mother what Linux was, I mentioned “open source,” to which she wryly replied “Did you say… open sores?” (rather clever, I thought). The average consumer really has no idea what open source software is, nor should they have to understand it. The word “embedded” is another basically meaningless term to the average person. I usually explain to them that Wind River provides products and services in the creation of the “software goo” that manufacturers put into things like cell phones, network switches, cars, airplanes and many other things that people never think about. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a polite smile followed a polite phrase like “Oh, I see.”

What is interesting is that although “embedded systems” used to be used only when a computer was absolutely necessary to get something done, these systems are now assumed to be in pretty much every device we use. Twenty years ago, the thought of having a computer in a toaster would have been considered the work of Rube Goldberg, but now, a tech-savvy consumer might say “Of course my toaster has a computer in it. How else would I download my toasting patterns to the toaster and have it tweet me when my toast is done!?” Okay, they’re not quite tweeting yet, but there are digital toasters.

Embedded systems are now everywhere, people just don’t think of them as a special case. If I say something like “I work on software that is used in devices that connect consumers to the global network” or “I work on software that is used in medical devices” or “I work on software that allows more efficient use of energy,” people light up and say “Oh, that sounds really interesting!” Sure, underneath it’s the same old embedded software “goo” that makes the world go round, but people are becoming more aware of how embedded devices have changed how we live our lives. They just don’t think of it as “embedded,” but rather an assumption of how things are done.

At the recent Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit and the Embedded Linux Conference, I was pleasantly surprised at the great attendance of these events. Although in recent times some of the biggest buzz has been around smart phones and tablets, there is an increasing interest in deeply embedded devices as well. At the Yocto Project informational sessions the sessions were standing room only, and the level of engagement by those attending was very high.

So…I’m thinking that embedded is cool after all. Maybe it just needs a new name.