Mass Market Smartphone – The Five Cent Cigar

Thomas Marshall, U.S. vice-president to Woodrow Wilson, once said “What this country needs is a really good five cent cigar”.  Now, as then, the world is facing a range of economic woes.  And like Marshall’s much-desired stogie, a mass-market smartphone would suit the needs of budget-strapped consumers, and also stimulate business for device manufacturers (OEMs), mobile network operators (MNOs), developers and independent software vendors (ISVs)

The mobile device market has traditionally been highly stratified (at least as described by industry pundits).  Pricey smart phones on top, more accessible feature phones in the middle, and entry-level devices for for the masses.  Increasing functionality at incrementally lower retail prices — cameras, texting, web, email — is blurring boundaries among tiers, leaving distinctions that emphasize software and price:

Tier OS Focus Applications Chipset Price
Smart Phone Android, Linux, RIM OS, Symbian, WinMo Applications Pre-load and open Post-load from app stores ARM Cortex and ARM11 >$150
Feature Phone BREW, Linux, Series40 Multiple Functions Pre-load, some Post-load ARM9 $50-$150
Entry Level Low-level RTOS (Nucleus, OSE, etc.) Voice and Texting Preload only ARM7 / ARM9 <$50

Some explanation

  • Pre-load Software includes OS, middleware and basic applications built into handsets at the factory; Post-load comprises software installed in-channel and by end-users
  • Pricing will vary by region and by plan, especially for regions favoring MNO subsidies to operators
  • Smartphone OEMs typically deploy highly integrated chipsets with dedicated silicon to run applications, multimedia and radio baseband; cheaper devices rely on a single CPU to handle all types of processing

Boundaries among the three tiers are further degraded by product life-cycles, especially from top-tier OEMs:  last season’s smartphone is often repositioned as this season’s featurephone, in terms of functionality, but especially in price:  in the U.S., after introducing the iPhone 3GS, Apple knocked down the price of the iPhone 3G to under $100; Cupertino recently announced the same shift with the iPhone 4 and the 3GS.

Born to be Cheap

The vision for a mass-market smartphone is not one of relegating older kit to the bargain basement.  Instead, these devices are spec’d and built to deliver a smartphone experience at a featurephone price.  While initially emanating from less well-known Asian OEMs, top tier handset manufacturers also investing in mass-market smartphones as well.

What is motivating this paradigm shift?  Isn’t the mobile market complicated enough, already?

The desire for a mass market smartphone actually is shared by all participants in the mobile/wireless ecosystem, with shared benefit. Basically, it all comes down to volume:

  • OEMs: increase model/product line volumes and/or margins at a given price point
  • MNOs: drive data traffic volume (more subscribers, not more data) and services revenues, sustaining ARPUs; reduce or remove the need for subsidies for smartphones with high wholesale prices (a $99 iPhone still lists a unsubsidized $600+ MSRP)
  • ISVs and Developers: provide (even larger) markets for mobile applications through higher application-capable handset volumes
  • End-users: give more consumers in more markets a taste of the smartphone experience at a lower cost of entry

The Path to Mass-Market

A friend of mine refers to the present time as “the decade of cheap”.  A mass-market smartphone would certainly fit his threadbare vision of a Walmart-style, made-in-China mobile marketplace.  However, for a mass-market smartphone to succeed, it truly must deliver a smartphone quality experience.

There are two non-exclusive parallel paths to building mass-market smartphones, focusing on hardware and on software.

Hardware: to date, most OEMs have focused cost-cutting efforts on existing hardware bills-of-material (BoMs).  Without really changing how smartphones are built, they seek to scrimp and save on individual components:  cheaper displays, less hefty batteries, end-of-life chipsets, etc.  This kind of thousand-cuts incremental approach can work for an individual device, but the exercise must be repeated with each new device as market conditions change.

Software: smartphones are defined by the software they run more than the hardware that runs them, so attacking an increasingly pricey software BoM should yield results, right? To start with, OEMs large and small are shifting to open source applications OSes, especially Android and Linux (and driving down the price of WindowsMobile and pushing Symbian to become open source).  But the same logic applies to pricier, full-bore smartphones, and with an increasingly open source software stack, there are even few opportunities to cut BoM line item costs.

The key, then, to building a mass-market smartphone, lies not in hardware nor in software, but in optimizing the two together — getting smartphone software to run on significantly more modest hardware platforms. This exercise involves

  • consolidating separate application and baseband chipsets into mainstream ARM9 CPUs
  • porting baseband and multimedia stacks from legacy DSPs and dedicated ARM chips onto applications processors

and yields significant BoM savings from integrating cheaper CPUs, consolidating previously dedicated DRAM and flash, broadening the choice of available displays and batteries, simplifying circuit board design and testing, and many other areas.  Such consolidation can also enhance battery life and yield surprising performance gains, especially for cross-stack operations like networking.

Deus ex Machina?

Sounds easy, no?  So why isn’t the market flooded with cheap and richly functional devices?  The main impediments come from investments required for consolidation and integration.  Porting (legacy) software takes time and introduces new headaches, and chipset vendors of course would rather fill sockets with new, higher-margin silicon than seek new designs for existing chips.

A different, perhaps radical approach that I personally favor is to use virtualization.  Targeting virtual CPUs instead of shoe-horning code into a single physical processor saves time and money otherwise spent on porting, (re)integrating, re-certifying, etc.  My friend at Steve Subar of OK Labs talks about how to leverage virtualization for this purpose in a recent blog, and I myself looked at the BoM impact in a related Linux Pundit tear down white paper.

Smokin’ Smartphones

Americans at the turn of the last century may never have gotten a really good five cent cigar, but consumers will soon enjoy mass-market smartphones.   Recent announcements of mass-market smartphone chipsets by Qualcomm (MSM7225), Marvell (Pantheon 9xx) and other suppliers, and of actual handsets by HTC, Motorola, Samsung et al. are only the beginning of a trend that will encompass handset OEMs of all stripes and energize the rest of the mobile-wireless ecosystem.

Tell me what you think.  Would you buy a mass-market smartphone for yourself, for your family, for mobile workers at your company?  Will the ecosystem embrace this new class of device, or continue with business as usual?

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Linaro – Open Source Glue

Last week ARM Ltd. and its licensees Freescale, Samsung, ST-Ericsson and TI, along with IBM, launched Linaro, a new organization to “foster innovation in the Linux® community through a common foundation of tools and software”.

My first reaction to the Linaro announcement was “O Joy, another Linux knitting circle”.  But I am happy to say that Linaro appears to be what the industry really needs – the glue between silicon and software (my apologies to fans of Linaro stallions). Instead of creating standards or aggregating yet another embedded Linux distribution, Linaro has the stated goal of enabling existing (and new) software to run on actual silicon in the marketplace.

Deliverables of such an effort include

  • device drivers
  • board support packages (configurations)
  • Linux kernel patches
  • tools to support integration of these and other contributions

Let’s take a stroll down .org memory lane to compare Linaro’s goals to the aspirations and accomplishments of other initiatives, past and present:

Embedded/Mobile Linux .org Roll Call

OSDL Mobile Linux InitiativeMLI put together requirements for a mobile Linux-based platform as a de facto soft standard (as OSDL did with Carrier Grade Linux).  Unlike CGL, MLI members were disappointed by the lack of actual software deliverables (that is, participants played chicken with contributions).  MLI did serve to help popularize Linux as a foundation of mobile telephony.

CELF – the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum worked to create standards for Linux in a range of consumer electronics, including mobile telephony; these efforts were very skewed toward particular member implementations and did not survive industry scrutiny.  CELF also instigated real  implementation by funding kernel contributions by maintainers (e.g., for flash and power management) and today survives as a sponsor of Embedded Linux Conferences.

LiPS – the Linux Phone Standards Forum had the explicit goal of creating Linux-based standards for mobile terminal devices.  Led by FT/Orange, ACCESS and VirtualLogix, they published several generations of specifications and were in the process of launching an open source TAPI project when the organization was absorbed by LiMo in 2008.

LiMo – the LiMo Foundation strives create the “first truly open, hardware-independent, Linux-based operating system for mobile device”, realized as a distribution shared by its members and deployed in member-built handsets.  Despite these lofty goals, LiMo is hampered by a highly stratified and expensive membership structure, tortuous IPR with limited out-licensing,  slow-to-market specifications, and most importantly incomplete validation suites and an MIA SDK.  While LiMo claims dozens of phones as compliant, the basis is a very rudimentary specification, with little or no visibility to applications developers (cp. Android).

Linux Foundation / MeeGo – In 2007, the Linux Foundation was born out of the merger of Free Standards Group (home of the Linux Standards Base) and OSDL.  They have been very successful in continuing work on LSD (fighting fragmentation) and in sponsoring a range of kernel engineering and other development activities.  They recently announced their acceptance of hosting MeeGo, the result of merging Nokia’s Maemo tablet platform with Intel’s netbook/MID Moblin project.  MeeGo targets a range of embedded/mobile applications, including mobile handsets.

So, Linaro is NOT a standards body, not a distribution supplier and not a mere cheerleader, as far as I can tell.  They seem to have a clear vision of what they want to do – enable Linux on real silicon.

To that end, they are not getting fancy, especially in terms of licensing.  Unlike LiPS, LiMo and others, they have pledged to adhere to existing licensing regimes and not indulge in license proliferation (beyond the profligate OSI corpus).  In particular, the Linaro IP Policy refreshingly stipulates

  • respect for and adherence to upstream licenses
  • commitment to use only existing, OSI-approved licenses

Cautious Optimism

Like embarking on a second (or third) marriage, launching a new .org for embedded Linux represents the triumph of optimism over experience. Despite (or because of?) my personal involvement with several of the .orgs above,  I believe that Linaro has achievable goals and the members and means to achieve them.  In particular, Linaro sets its sites on providing and improving infrastructure, an area where open source and .orgs have classically excelled.

So, keep your eyes on Linaro.  Not the horse, but much needed glue.

Will Android Drive Mobile Commodization?

Little Androids, On the Hillside . . .

Yesterday, my friend and fellow analyst Andreas Constantinou of VisionMobile delivered an excellent guest blog for mobile virtualization supplier OK Labs.  In his post, Andreas posits that Android is changing the macroeconomics of mobile, increasingly to resemble the PC business.  In particular, he highlights the emergence of cookie-cutter Android reference designs and ever-cheaper Android-based handsets from chipset vendors, ODMs and contract manufacturers in Taiwan and China.  He segregates the coming wave of Android handset OEMs into Leaders, Innovators and Assemblers and projects that by 2015 the top 5% of the handset market will enjoy 50% of the revenue, in concert with today’s global PC marketplace.

There are indeed striking parallels between the PC business and trends in mobile-wireless, as well as important, persistent differences.

In the mid-90s, a decade before Linux Pundit, I worked as Country Manager at Acer Brazil. We constantly referenced Acer founder Stan Shih‘s “Smile Curve”. Let’s use my old boss’s paradigm (slightly updated) to compare the two markets.

Stan Shih's Smile Curve

Pre-commoditization, PC value-added was dominated by manufacturers cum hardware integrators — originally IBM, Digital and their peers.  PC expertise sat in the hands of a few,  those companies drew on components of their choosing and went to market through direct sales channels.  Industry standardization gave rise to the “PC-AT virtual machine” (BIOS, memory maps, peripherals, etc.) and more importantly, the emphasis on PCs being defined by DOS and Windows software (and not the box they lived in).  Standardization on these h/w and s/w parameters initiated the value shift into the “smile” that Stan described:  the highest value today lies in key components — CPU, HDD, display, memory, GPU, etc. and OS — and in brand and channel, and not in with integrators and motherboard manufacturers.

Another angle to describe this value-added rictus is with barriers to entry:  almost anyone today can put together a whitebox PC from available components — take a trip to Fry’s or visit the Mom-and-Pop PC stores that still dot developing countries.  Design and manufacturing-wise, any decent team of hardware engineers can start a motherboard company is 9-12 months.  But how much time and money must you invest to ship your own processors, hard drives, DRAMs or LCD displays?  Ditto for brand and channel, which takes years and millions of Dollars and Euros and RMB to cultivate.

The global handset market, from its inception in the 1980s through most of its history, cleaved closely the legacy PC (frowning) ecosystem:  handset OEMs defined what is a mobile phone (especially a smartphone), and held value-added captive.  Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, LG, Apple and their cohorts essentially dictate(d) to chipset vendors and to OS suppliers the form and function of the shiny mobile baubles they produce(d).

The mobile business, however, departed and still departs markedly from its PC analogs in key parameters:

  • handsets were (and mostly still are) content delivery vehicles (voice, data, video) and not stand-alone compute platforms (cp. pre-Internet PCs vs. modern desktops)
  • core handset requirements were/are determined not by OEMs but by their channel partners, the mobile network operators (MNOs)
  • wireless connectivity (GPRS, CDMA, etc.) while standardized as protocols and embedded in mobile chipsets, is not available to all comers:  narrow and deep silicon sales channels and certification/homologation requirements restrict who can field a phone in most global markets; building a quality radio set is still an art.
  • while barriers to entry in building handsets notch incrementally lower, building and profitably marketing mobile handsets is still difficult and arcane

The introduction and increasing ubiquity of Android is leveling the playing field and certainly can have the impact described by Andreas:  lower-cost (cheap?) Android-based smartphones built by upstart Asian OEMs and sold through non-MNO retail and self-service channels.  But building and shipping quality Android-based handsets (let alone functional ones) has consistently proven more difficult than it should be.  Even branded T1 Android phones have received lackluster reviews. Moreover, while CES and MWC this year and last were replete with Android phone announcements, most devices have been late to market (or yet to ship), with underwhelming user experiences.

I do not argue that like the PC marketplace, the Android ecosystem is increasingly driven by applications.  Indeed, the Android Market is flush with thousands of apps and poised to give the Apple iTunes App Store stiff competition n the next 12-18 months.  But, for the moment at least, handsets, even smartphones are still phones first and application platforms second (I own Nokia Maemo devices but I use my iPhone all the time).  OEM expertise still rules in delivering mobile phones to market, more in concert with the notebook market than its whitebox PC parent.

The undeniable value-added of technology vendors (Qualcomm, TI, Samsung et al.), of handset OEMs (Motorola, HTC, Samsung) and of full-service operator-centric channel will for years keep the mobile market from grinning Stan Shih’s pearly smile, or even from flashing the notebook sneer.  Instead we’ll have the Mobile Handset Bite:

The "Handset Bite"

Unlike the PC Smile Curve, the Bite will be shaped by

  • Android itself not adding value, but the hardware technology to support it doing so, as will key s/w components like CODECs, media players, home screens and of course, applications
  • Upstart Tier II/III OEMs and ODMs adding little value to Android itself and the chipsets it runs on, but Tier I OEMs building Android handsets will enjoy better margins (sans royalties and subsidies), and delivering Android-based differentiated user experiences, hopefully/eventually on a par with Apple iPhone
  • Cheap Android-based handsets flooding BRICK, developing and even developed markets through non-operator channels, with mixed results

So, to answer the question posed by the title of this blog — Yes and No.  Android will not commoditize the mobile market (more than it already is), but it will help to keep it polarized between Tier I devices with high value-added and the rest of the (commodity) pack.

Also interesting will be a new category,  emerging from Tier I OEMs – the Mass Market Smartphone.  More on this topic in my next blog.

Cavium Acquires MontaVista – Embedded Linux Consolidation Continues

The original MontaVista Hardhat Linux penguinYesterday semiconductor supplier Cavium Networks announced its plans to acquire embedded Linux pioneer MontaVista Software.  MontaVista, founded in 1999 by Jim Ready (of Ready Systems / VRTX reknown) was among the first to commercialize and evangelize Linux for embedded designs.  It was one of the few remaining independent vendors in the embedded Linux business when Cavium snapped it up yesterday for $16M in cash and $34M in stock.

When Silicon Buys Software and Services

The acquisition is the latest in a string of M&A moves by silicon vendors hoping to gain an edge in filling sockets by providing software tools, platforms and services.  The most recent, most visible and most lucrative was Intel’s buy of Wind River earlier this year for a cool $884M, most palpably to support design-in of Intel’s mobile/embedded Atom architecture family.  Others include

  • Motorola Semiconductor (now Freescale) purchase of MetroWerks in 2003
  • Mentor Graphics acquisition of Embedded Alley earlier in 2009 (Mentor helps companies design semiconductors)

Independent embedded Linux companies remaining after Cavium’s move are much smaller players like TimeSys,  services provider Denx and Linux tools supplier Viosoft.

Why MontaVista, Why Now?

Cavium’s stated reasons for the buy are to “complement Cavium’s market leading processor portfolio” and to  “significantly increase Cavium’s software and services revenue”, which in 2009 could amount to a top-line bump of $30M according to Cavium’s investor call.  Unstated are likely concerns about sustaining Cavium’s traditionally close ties with Wind River for design wins with popular Cavium MIPS architecture CPUs for networking and other applications.

MontaVista, for its part, has reportedly been courting suitors for three years or more, after multiple funding rounds that totaled over $100M since the company’s founding in 1999.  The marriage with Cavium reflects the embedded Linux supplier’s long-standing ties to semiconductor suppliers, including  AMCC, Freescale, Intel, Marvell, and Texas Instruments, and processor IP providers ARM and MIPS Technologies.  Many were also strategic investors and sources of substantial historical enablement revenue.  It also probably reflects the state of the firm’s revenues and cash reserves.

Analysis – Acquisition a Bang or a Whimper?

The acquisition is certainly a bang for Cavium.  They get revenue growth, enabling technology, expertise and new ecosystem reach.  But for MontaVista?  They get financial security (for now) and a place in a strong and growing technology supplier.  However, this acquisition surely falls short of the “event” once envisioned by Ready and his many investors.

MontaVista made a strong start in 1999 and 2000, riding the wave of infrastructure build-out to support what later turned into the Internet bubble.  Even after that bubble burst, MontaVista continued to grow, complementing still-strong networking business with consumer electronics, mobile telephony and other intelligent device application segments.  They achieved an impressive series of “firsts” in bringing Linux and open source software (OSS) to the embedded space:

  • First commercial cross tools and fully embedded platform for Power, MIPS and ARM architectures
  • First support for redefinable CPU architectures
  • First to market with a Carrier Grade Linux platform
  • First mass deployments in dozens mobile handset designs and millions of handsets with MobiLinux

and

  • Key enhancements in real-time responsiveness of the Linux kernel
  • Investment in maintaining Linux kernel architecture trees, including especially PowerPC and multiple ARM family CPUs
  • Important advances in and contributions to  open source projects, including the Linux kernel and device drivers, threading libraries, power management, GDBserver and numerous others
  • Early support for embedded multicore architectures and designs
  • Industry leadership in evangelizing embedded Linux and providing assurances about the IP safety of embedded open source

So why did an acquisition occur not at first, but at last?  How was late starter Wind River able to enter the embedded Linux space in earnest after MontaVista’s five year head-start,  and eclispe MontaVista in Linux-based revenues and ultimately in valuation?

For all of the company’s “firsts”, MontaVista took numerous missteps, slowing its growth and causing it to miss multiple windows of opportunity:

Value-added:  for most of its history, MontaVista primarily acted as an integrator of OSS projects, treading water and often swimming below the ever-rising open source value line.  True innovation emerged from the company, but always so low in the stack (mostly in the kernel) that they were unsuccessful in commanding a premium for it.

Revenue Scaling: Because they packaged up and commercialized a broad array of existing projects, and marketed them as development seats to engineers, MontaVista revenue growth was always limited by their ability to capture development teams as customers. They resisted both developing deployment IP or reselling run-time technology from 3rd parties, limiting their opportunity to benefit from successful high-volume OEM customer products.  At one time the company did offer a per-unit licensing option for this aggregated open source content.  Primarily a response to requirements for risk-sharing from key customers, this short-lived selling model baffled many in the industry who assumed that OSS code could only accrue services revenues.

Sustaining vs. Enabling Revenue: MontaVista cultivated strong ties to semiconductor suppliers and other hardware vendors, and was successful for many years in charging a premium for hardware enablement and upstream migration of patches and other code to support CPUs, SoCs and embedded computers.  At various times, the company was more successful in extracting revenues for enabling reference hardware than for supporting OEMs in building product on those systems and silicon.  The result of such strong business development was a product line bloated with board support packages that never saw the light of day in shipping OEM products but added substantial time and costs to new releases and sustaining engineering.  This focus on enablement also served to alienate  partners over time when they could not justify ROI  for their NRE.

Business Model and Execution:  Many MontaVista watchers have argued that the company’s business model was essentially flawed. Certainly there is room for debate about the viability of going to market with a product built almost entirely from freely available OSS components (vs. complementing that platform with proprietary IP, etc.).  Such a model based on building with and for open source can devolve into less attractive high-overhead packaged service business in the face of a rising value line.

By contrast, I would argue that MontaVista insiders and its various detractors were in no position to critique the business model itself since that model (and its minor variations) was never really tested.  The model did not fail the company, but rather the company failed to execute on that model.

Failure to execute belies key assumptions about serving device OEMs with embedded Linux platforms and toolkits:

  • OEMs look to suppliers like MontaVista for productization of the latest Linux kernel technology, libaries, middleware and tools
  • OEMs expect frequent releases and deep expertise at many levels of the platform and tools
  • OEMs anticipate something “in the box” other than bits and bytes they can increasingly source directly from OSS project trees

While MontaVista made a strong start in all these areas, over time they reduced the  investments needed to meet these (not unreasonable) expectations. In the last five years, MontaVista Linux releases became fewer and farther between and did not closely track ongoing Linux kernel and other OSS project evolution.  The company lost most of its hallmark on-staff project maintainers, along with their insight and hands-on knowledge.  And the firm never made sorely needed investments in truly original differentiating technologies and products.

In closing, I remember my first encounter with the company shortly after its founding in the Spring of 1999.  I was doing a trade study of emerging embedded Linux with a colleague and we pondered the future of Jim Ready’s then-new company.  Based on the history of Ready Systems and its flagship VRTX RTOS (acquired by Microtec Research for a modest sum in 1994) we debated whether this new venture would rise to spectacular success or  ultimately stumble.

I guess we were both right.

Android Beyond Mobile. Way Beyond.

I recently published an article entitled “Android Beyond Mobile” in the venerable RTC Magazine, a war horse technical  publication focused on real-time and embedded computing:

Originally a niche platform for mobile handsets, Android is moving into a host of embedded applications building on Linux, Java and the desires of users to frequently bring new applications into existing embedded devices. [Read More]

In the mobile/wireless development circles I frequent, the piece has been well circulated, but I have to admit that  the concept has quickly gained currency, with or without my advocacy.  For example, at the recent ARM techcon3 developers conference, the Android workshops offered by Mentor Graphics for general embedded development were standing-room-only affairs.  I also just helped MIPS Technologies host their MIPS Linux Summit, where the focus was on Linux but much of of the buzz from IP licensees and developers alike came from Android on MIPS architecture designs in networking and multimedia.

This evening, I came across an article by my friend and colleague, Open IT Strategies blogger and professor at SJSU Joel West.  The article  highlights the next wave of Android disruption with a focus on the emerging eReader market, in particular on the Android-based Nook eBook from Barnes and Noble.

First phones, then netbooks, now eBooks, multimedia players, TVs, set-top boxes, DVRs — even industrial control and medical devices are turning to Android as an enabling platform, replete with applications from the Android Market and a growing ecosystem of developers and commercial players. I am almost ready to lay odds that within two years, Android will find its way into more intelligent devices outside of mobile telephony than it will in just mobile handsets.

Readers – am I crazy?  Please, tell me about your plans to deploy Android beyond mobile and how the Google/OHA platform is changing development and deployment of your intelligent device designs.

Mentor Graphics Acquires Embedded Alley, Unveils Embedded Open Source Strategy

Continuing the trend of consolidation started by Intel’s acquisition of Wind River, Mentor Graphics announced today that the EDA vendor was acquiring Embedded Alley, a supplier of embedded Linux and Android solutions and services.  In bringing Embedded Alley into the Mentor Graphics family, the company (finally) makes its entry into the open source embedded marketplace, complementing its deeply-embedded legacy proprietary RTOSes, Nucleus and VRTX, with the Embedded Alley Development System for Linux and for Android, along with complementary services.

The announcement comes on the heels of Embedded Alley’s very successful launch of tools and services for deploying the Google Android platform in non-mobile applications, specifically for MIPS and Power Architecture CPUs in designs ranging from portable multimedia to home entertainment to automotive to instrumentation to industrial control.  These applications align closely with Mentor Graphics embedded target markets, and Embedded Alley competence in Linux and Android clearly  motivated the acquisition.

Mentor Graphics and Embedded Software – A Brief History

Mentor Graphics is unique among EDA suppliers in making consistent, long-term investments in embedded software to complement the company’s more traditional design tools and services offerings.   With the acquisition of  Embedded Alley,  a relatively young company, but one with already strong traction in embedded open source, the mature Mentor Graphics Embedded Software Division substantiates its long-held vision for full device life-cycle coverage, from silicon design through device software deployment.

The history of that business unit reflects Mentor’s investments towards that same end:

  • 1990-1994 : Mentor partnered closely with Microtec Research (my employer until 1993)
  • 1994 : Microtec Research acquires Ready Systems (provider of VRTX, founded by Jim Ready of more recent MontaVista renown)
  • 1995 : Mentor Graphics acquires Microtec Research and established Embedded S/W Division, with compiler (MCC), debugger (XRAY) and RTOS (VRTX) offerings
  • 2002 : Mentor Graphics acquires Accelerated Technology, providers of the Nucleus RTOS and tools
  • 2006 : Mentor acquired Embedded Performance Inc, provider of JTAG hardware debug tools

Key Points

The announcement carries implications for reshaping the embedded software landscape:

  • The Mentor Graphics Embedded Software Division has always been a part of the a much larger software products company.  The announcement signals Mentor’s design to grow its embedded business, but as a services offering
  • While Nucleus (and VRTX before it) enjoyed most of its design wins as a deeply embedded OS (e.g., in mobile, for baseband processing in over 1B handsets), the Linux and Android technology purveyed by Embedded Alley is definitively for hosting highly visible value-added applications
  • Unlike the Intel acquisition of Wind River, this merger is not designed to pull silicon into new designs (e.g., Atom in 3G mobile) but rather to expand a broad base of non-mobile embedded projects using Linux and Android (although I am sure that mobile is not 100% off the table), to complement Mentor’s EDA tools and broaden the company’s ability to address OEM product life cycles
  • Also unlike the Intel-Wind River deal, in which Intel’s vast open source capability and experience was joined to Wind’s lesser but still mature Linux services capability, Mentor is looking to Embedded Alley to reinvent their embedded business around Linux, Android and open source.

Wednesday’s Press Event

The acquisition was announced on Wednesday, July 29 in San Francisco at the Design Automation Conference (DAC), at an exclusive press-only event.  Presentations by Mentor Graphics and Embedded Alley executives were followed by partner talks from ARM, MIPS and those companies’ silicon licensees.  The lineup also featured a lively pitch by Jim Zemlin of the Linux Foundation.

The New Embedded Linux/Android Opportunity, Post Wind River

With Embedded Alley on board, Mentor is well positioned to exploit the highly visible gap left when Intel snapped up Wind River.  Despite Alameda’s strong messages of continuity, OS, tools and services companies have been circling around semiconductor suppliers hoping to secure relationships and design wins for ARM, MIPS and Power Architecture that Wind is unlikely to pursue as part of Intel and the Atom juggernaut.

While there is no denying that Intel’s acquisition leaves Wind River’s traditional silicon relationships open to new challengers, those relationships were never exclusive.  Mentor and the rest of industry will still have to execute on their hopes/intentions to exploit the gaps left by Wind-Intel, with competitive technologies, platforms and services, something few have been able to do to date, on both tilted and level playing fields.

Deep Background and Fun Facts

I myself have a long history with Mentor and its Embedded Software division.  I actually worked for Microtec Research from 1988 to 1993 as product manager for XRAY and for the popular 68000 tool suite.  I exited right before the merger with Ready Systems and the subsequent purchase of the company by Mentor, and moved to Brazil (1993-1996, the Lost Years).   In 2005, I actually presented on embedded Linux at the Mentor Graphics sales kickoff in San Francisco.  I was asked by then VP of Marketing Robert Day to give the team a “wake up call” and I did my best to open their eyes.   In the face of persistent denial on the part of the Nucleus OS and tools sales teams, I explained that Linux and OSS were already eating their proverbial lunch, and that OEMs deployed the open source OS not BECAUSE of its attributes but rather IN SPITE of those same attributes.

The acquisition brings a chapter of embedded software history full circle:  as cited above , Microtec acquired Ready Systems and was then bought by Mentor.   In 1999, Jim Ready exited Mentor Graphics to found MontaVista Software (I was there too!).  Almost the entirety of the Embedded Alley team, from CEO Pete Popov to CTO Dan Malek to COO Matt Locke to the firm’s two dozen other staffers worked for MontaVista before founding/joining Embedded Alley.  President Paul Staudacher worked at Mentor until he joined MontaVista in 1999.

And now, Embedded Alley is “back”, inside Mentor, where they will hopefully reinvent the company’s embedded business and probably a goodly portion of the EDA and embedded industries as well.

Google Chrome and Android – Why not AndroChrome?

Last week’s buzz over Google’s announcement of its Chrome desktop (and presumably notetop) OS led me and my readers to ask why the Silicon Valley behemoth needs two mobile OSes.  If device OEMs are working to retool, refactor  and deploy Android for netbooks, why can’t Google do the same?

Google’s rationale for launching Chrome as a separate OS from Android centers on differences in visual form factor and connectivity, as aligned with Google’s commercial goals. Google’s building and backing of Android  was motivated by the company’s desire to promulgate its search-and-advertising revenue model to ubiquitous 3G mobile hardware.

While Google could have continued with distribution of  various mobile apps (Maps, etc.) and mobile browser-based search on competing platforms (especially iPhone), the company appears to want to create a more integrated mobile experience and also be able to gather user data uniquely associated with mobile use cases.  Google also needed a mobile OS that had stand-alone, stateful capabilities, given the still-evolving level of connectivity and available bandwidth on 3G networks, especially in North America. Building Android to run Java (Dalvik is J2SE compatible) also gives OEMs deploying the platform the ability to leverage both existing mobile developer expertise (still very Java-centric) as well enterprise and desktop Java-savvy developers.

The desktop, by contrast, already has a working search-and-advertising model at larger visual form factors, but also enjoys high bandwidth connectivity.  For tethered devices with broadband, it makes more sense to build a web-based OS, in this case with the Chrome browser and a stripped down version of Linux.

Google’s choices reflect a dynamic I have documented in some of my recent blog entries, emphasizing that there is a difference in coming “down from notebooks” and “up from handsets”.  As sales of traditional (too soon to say legacy?) desktop PC and fully-loaded notebooks have flattened and perhaps begin to slide, the trend from PC manufacturers has been to cost-down those devices.  A web-based OS for PCs, notebooks and now netbooks supports that trend, requiring less memory, minimal mass storage, and less potent client CPUs (even as multi-core silicon becomes cheaply available).

On the “up from phones” curve, Android supports smarter smartphones, while still being a mobile phone OS (telephony, power management, footprint, LBS, etc.).

I myself do not see a clear point of convergence, just convergent trends.  The key for success for notebooks and netbooks with diminishing provisioning will be Google’s and others’ ability to leverage the cloud. To date, minimalist netbooks, running versions of Linux, have failed to make the jump from local to cloud computing for two reasons:  because PC OEMs and their channels still upsell on specs, leaving space for Microsoft as users opt to extend/mimic the desktop experience with Windows, Office, etc. and more strategically, because the value proposition of the cloud does not yet translate to the average end user.

With all the fuss over Chrome as a gauntlet thrown down to Microsoft, I think these and other basic questions are going unanswered.  I’d be eager to hear your views.