Cell phones: The next great software driver

First PCs, then servers and later the Internet drove our fundamental digital technology. Now cell phones are at the heart of every technology company’s plans.

One of the advantages of my being so delayed in writing up press interviews is that notes can be spread out on a large table and literally looked at top-down. When I recently assembled six months’ worth of information from dozens of companies, several trends materialized that weren’t previously obvious. In particular, it’s astounding how many hardware, semiconductor, and software companies are gearing their offerings towards the cell phone handset and portable Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) market. With this segment in mind, new, refined technologies emerge such as: virtualization-ready lightweight OS hypervisors, Size, Weight and Power (SWaP), and secure operating systems with information assurance. These technologies are all hugely important in personal communications, financial transactions, medical devices with record storage/retrieval, and defense systems. Here’s a sample of some of these software announcements and how they are driving the next wave of the cell phone and overall embedded markets.

Intel and Wind River

The August 31, 2009 issue of Fortune magazine highlights the growing battle between smartphone giants Research in Motion (BlackBerry) and Apple (iPhone) with a market that, according to analyst firm IDC, was 1.19 billion handsets strong in 2008, of which 13 percent (155 million) were smartphones. IDC predicts that by 2013, 14 percent of the 1.4 billion handset market will be smartphones. Think of every smartphone as having more than the capabilities of your desktop computer plus a three-day battery life. The technology required to make this possible is awesome.

I believe Intel acquired Wind River Systems to gain a foothold in this market by figuring the operating system could help supplant ARM and Freescale SoCs by making painless the abstracted transition to Intel’s x86-inspired Atom CPU. (See my “MIDs course correction: Intel buys Wind River” writeup in the Military Embedded Systems June edition at mil-embedded.com/articles/id/?4025.) This idea of using software to leverage IC sockets is gaining momentum. Mentor Graphics recently made several acquisitions geared to keep the company’s EDA tools and Nucleus RTOS firmly focused on the cell phone and MIDs market.

Mentor’s acquisitions galore

By acquiring Embedded Alley Solutions, Mentor Graphics combines “Embedded Alley’s Android and Linux products and services with the Mentor Graphics Nucleus Real-Time Operating System (RTOS), tools and middleware,” said the July 30, 2009 press release. Mentor Graphics can now provide device manufacturers with all the software they need to build their products, while the company’s August 18, 2009 acquisition of LogicVision makes Built-In Self Test (BIST) capabilities possible for advanced SoC designs with logic, memory, and high-speed analog SERDES. Mentor Graphics’ Hank Andray, business unit director of their embedded systems division, sees Android as the User Interface (UI) springboard into a plethora of MIDs. Also, Mentor Graphics’ Vista platform (no relation to Microsoft’s product) is a power modeling tool clearly targeting low-power, handheld devices such as cell phones. It’s not too hard to envision Nucleus or Android powering other display-oriented embedded devices besides cell phones.

One might think that a lightweight OS such as Nucleus would fare better than the perceived “heavy” VxWorks from Wind River. Not so, says Warren Kurisu, senior director of VxWorks product management at Wind River. The current 6.7 version is modular and scalable, making it ideal for smartphones and other MIDs. Its footprint can be reduced to a mere 50 KB, though it appears the company hasn’t won many “feature phone” designs in awhile. Instead, the company is focusing more on bolting VxWorks to the new Wind River Hypervisor (June 2009) to enable multicore designs and multi-OS virtualization – the same vision shared by Mentor with Nucleus, Linux, and Android.

It’s OK to be secure

Open Kernel Labs, a company known for its OKL4 embedded hypervisor used in more than 300 million cell phones, is also onboard with the concept of a partitioned OS that runs virtualized applications on top of a single- or multicore CPU. But recently, OK Labs announced that the precursor of their Secure HyperCell Technology has completed “formal verification” and “mathematical proof of correctness of OS/hypervisor kernel” by NITCA (Australia’s Information and Communications Technology Research Centre of Excellence).

While OKL4 was always secure enough to prevent priority inversions or rogue applications from spilling between handset partitions, it’s entirely conceivable that OK Labs could achieve the government’s rigid EAL 7 NIAP Common Criteria certification. This is something achieved by no other operating system on the planet, much less one designed for use in cell phones and MIDs. The significance for handsets is bulletproof secure financial transactions and record retrieval, or just mission- and safety-critical computing in the palm of your hand rivaling desktop systems.

Software as drivers

The aforementioned announcements are but a handful aimed at cell phones and MIDs. Add in Samplify, Synopsis/Synplicity, Open Silicon, LynuxWorks, and others and the trend is clear: Those portable, handheld wonderblocks are driving the pace of innovation for the entire embedded community.

Chris A. Ciufo

cciufo@opensystemsmedia.com