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I started writing this post back in May, but got sidetracked and never finished it, partly because it sounded like sour grapes from someone who has used a netbook and didn’t like the user experience. The thing is, I don’t use a netbook, never wanted to use one, and the few times I have seen them I didn’t like the user experience. That’s the real reason I didn’t finish the post—I didn’t want to comment on something I didn’t know well.

[Note: If this looks familiar, I am plagiarizing myself syndicating from my other blog at MontaVista]

It looks like I’m not the only one. Jason Hiner of TechRepublic today announced the death of the netbook on his blog. While I think death may be a little premature to declare, I think doom is certain called for, despite Larry Dignan’s rebuttal on ZDnet. And I don’t want to leave out Laptop Magazine’s Mark Spoonauer, who also declares death and even provides a headstone.

The thing is, I really want to like netbooks. They would solve many problems in my life while introducing few others. I don’t mind small screens, can cope with small keyboards for a limited time, and I know precisely which apps require which hardware to run effectively. I even had a “netbook” once, a little Psion that fit my pocket, but I eventually abandoned it. What I don’t want is:

  1. yet another device to feed—laptop and (non-smart) cell phone are plenty, thanks
  2. a new algorithm for syncing local data, as not everything lives in the cloud (yet)(thankfully)
  3. any device that solves 75% of a problem, yet requires 110% of my personal budget and replicates a device I already have (see #1)

Furthermore, I don’t think they are too expensive for what they are. Dropping prices will not sell more netbooks. Increasing performance will not sell more, either. Actually, I can’t think of a single thing that would cause me to augment my existing stable of computing power with yet another device, and that is the rub.

I am exactly the target market for netbooks, yet I don’t want one. That is why they will fail. There are a lot of people like me out there. We are already glutted with devices. Netbooks solve the same problems as notebooks, but at a higher price and with fewer options and lower performance. Smallness on its own is not a feature that grabs me unless it gets small enough that I can put it in my pocket.

All of this is based on my opinion. I am not presenting a very logical argument here because the market is not a logical beast. It is capricious and fickle, which is precisely why good ideas very often fail. To understand it, the logical thinker must shelve the logic and think like a fickle beast. The cost of failure is too high to depend on logic in a capricious world.

That being said, there are logical arguments, and Jason Hiner makes them quite well. The “that’s neat” response is not a long-term market driver. We encountered this at Transmeta back in 1999 trying to come up with a reference design for tablets—we called them “webpads”, and they bear a marked resemblance to today’s e-book readers, but they never took off (they were also far too expensive). For that matter, I think it remains to be seen whether e-book readers will take off, though as a device built to improve a specific user experience by using a people-friendly interface—e-ink in this case—they stand a good chance.

What I think might fit the sweet spot a little more closely is something like Dell’s new Latitude ON, which embeds a netbook-ish device inside a laptop. The tiny ARM-powered board shares keyboard, screen, and network connection and surfs and emails for 18 hours or more, and if I want more horsepower I can just push a button to boot or wake up the full laptop. That is a compromise I can live with. *

So, kudos to the netbook folks for trying. But what about MIDs? Are they in the same boat? I think that remains to be seen—the iTouch and Nokia N800 devices have certainly been popular among my geeky friends, but I have yet to see one in use that isn’t shadowed by the propeller on the user’s hat. It’s the “that’s neat” response again. I want to want one, but in reality I can’t justify it to my bank account or to my daily workflow. My immediate feeling is that the next generation of smartphones—especially the Motorola Droid—will make MIDs obsolete, but this will only happen in the US if they can break away from the usage models dominated by the carriers. The total cost of ownership is far, far too high. (See Droid and other smartphones compared by TCO.)

Here’s yet another angle: what is the logical difference between a MID that can read e-books, and an e-book reader that can browse the web? How about MID vs. smartphone? Which one would you buy, and why? Don’t be afraid to be illogical and capricious.

The main takeaway from all of this is that making a market in personal electronics is hard, and it is not getting easier or more obvious as technology improves. Making a market means building a product that provides a 100% solution for enough buyers to justify the cost of development, period. If that market is small or unsustainable, then it’s not a revolution, it’s a fad.

Code safely out there.

* Full disclosure: As it has now been officially announced, I can proudly say that MontaVista Montabello is running the Latitude ON, and that I helped work on the project. Actually I already said it, but now I can say it.

Texas Instruments is sponsoring an online unconference called ETechDays, going on now. I’ll be giving a talk at 12:30PST (2:30CST) on booting MontaVista Linux 6 on the Beagle Board.

For those on the left coast, note that all times are in Central Standard Time, i.e. 2 hours later than Pacific Standard Time.

Breaking news: Microsoft is following through on its promise earlier this year to open-source part of the .NET framework. TuxRadar and several other sources are confirming that within the next day or so, portions of the .NET Micro framework will be released under the Apache 2.0 license. Micro is a small chunk of .NET, but one that runs on ARM processors, which makes it of great interest to embedded software developers.

Now, this certainly isn’t all of .NET, nor even all of .NET Micro. No one seriously expected any of that. However, Microsoft’s willingness to send software that was previously highly proprietary into the open-source world is a fascinating sign of the times. Many of us are waiting with bated breath to hear how this news affects Mono, which is undoubtedly its main target. My guess is “business as usual, full steam ahead”—those folks have guts.

Full disclosure: I am a MontaVista employee and thus a stakeholder in this acquisition. However, I have worked with embedded systems and Linux since 1992, including two years at Wind River in the mid 1990s. I hope I can present a somewhat-objective, partly-informed grasp of the facts beyond my current situation.

I was intrigued by the opportunities for MontaVista provided by Intel’s acquisition of Wind River earlier this year, and a little scared by Mentor Graphics’ swallowing of Embedded Alley, which nudged Mentor into the role of embedded Linux provider, albeit focused on custom solutions.

However, I am absolutely floored by the opportunities presented for both MontaVista and Cavium with this merger.

The background issue with this deal is that embedded systems are very diverse from a hardware standpoint, and there are many players in the field. There are base architecture providers/licensors that provide raw architecture flavors: ARM, MIPS, x86, PowerPC, m68k, SPARC, Alpha, PA-RISC, a whole host of them. The technology is often known as IP (“intellectual property“). From these spring actual hardware providers, chip and board manufacturers who license the actual platform technology and produce physical examples. These licensees come in many different modes:

  • Some, like x86, are produced by the same company that invented it (Intel in this case) as well as by competitors (like AMD).
  • Sometimes the IP is owned by one company and licensed to a number of manufacturers. ARM is like this (owned by ARM Limited), as is SPARC (owned by Sun, now by Oracle) and MIPS (owned by MIPS Technologies).
  • Sometimes the IP is co-owned by several companies and licensed by a consortium (like PowerPC, developed by IBM and licensed by, which adds an interesting twist that consortium members can make money on their competitors’ products. It’s a crazy world.
  • Sometimes the IP ends up being owned by a company that goes under, leaving it in a delicate state. A timely example is Transmeta‘s IP, which was owned by Novafora until they closed up shop a few months ago. The IP is now for sale. (This one is particularly interesting: the Transmeta Crusoe and Efficeon processors were RISC-based, but supported x86 instructions. Again, it’s a crazy world.)

(Please note that this doesn’t even qualify as a primer on the subject. I’ll try to cover this and draw a map in a future post.)

While the desktop market has historically been driven by x86 architectures, the embedded market is much more fragmented. Some embedded licensees specialize on one particular architecture, like Intel, who only produces chips based on Intel-created IP. Others take an agnostic approach and license whichever architecture suits the solution they are seeking. Cavium Networks, for example, has produced products based on ARM, MIPS, SPARC, and x86 CPUs (and likely others I could not easily find).

All of the astute, intelligent, and frankly attractive readers of this blog remember that I am a Linux dude. I work in embedded systems, where there are tons of different architectures to choose from. Specifically, I work for a Linux provider who produces market-specific distributions and software development kits for a wide range of different architectures.

Linux has evolved to be a universal operating system. Originally conceived to run on x86 architectures, thanks to its open-source nature Linux has been ported to practically every modern microprocessor (and even an FPGA). It is particularly popular currently on ARM, MIPS, and PowerPC-based embedded systems, but for all intents and purposes, it can be made to run just about anywhere.

That sets the stage for a huge win-win scenario.

Wind River’s acquisition definitely fits, for lack of a better term, a “proprietary” model. As a standalone company, Wind River provided Linux solutions across the board just as MontaVista does. However, now they are owned by a company who is single-minded giant in desktop computing, and who probably acquired Wind River in the first place in order to extend their reach more deeply into the embedded market, where they have not had much recent success. There is no motivation for Intel to continue to provide software solutions for competitor’s products beyond current contracts, and a lot of motivation for them to close ranks. (Industry watchers will remember that this also happened to Metrowerks a short while after they were absorbed by Motorola/Freescale.)

However, the MontaVista/Cavium situation is different. Cavium is a solutions provider who is not tied to any particular platform. Cavium currently produces products primarily based on MIPS and ARM platforms (executives of both are quoted in the press release), but they are not limited to those, and have used others in the past, as stated above.

Those are the facts. What follows is conjecture based on those facts, simply my opinion.

This merger provides a strong impetus for Cavium to grow their product line into other markets. I would not be surprised to see Cavium extending its marketplace reach over the next few years, and expanding into new territory using MontaVista’s processor-agnostic philosophy as leverage. In fact, at the same time they announced this merger, Cavium also announced their intention to continue their relationships with Wind River and their other ecosystem partners, which I read as an desire to put a foothold on every aspect of embedded computing—ambitious, but now achievable. Cavium recognized a gap in their portfolio and filled it.

MontaVista, for their part, recognized a brass ring when offered, and took it. Other, more knowledgeable bloggers than I have already written about the merger in terms of MontaVista’s past, their business model, mistakes and successes. I am more concerned with the future.

The enormous potential is what I find so amazing about this merger. It provides MontaVista with a stable base where it can keep producing world-class software and tools, along with an extremely useful general embedded Linux community. It provides Cavium with an end-to-end hardware-to-software solution, as well as a set of software, tools, and ecosystem—support, QA, experienced FAE, professional services, documentation, community—to enter any embedded marketplace.

In other words, it is a win for both MontaVista and Cavium, and a huge potential upside for all of the customers of both companies.

UPDATE: Jerry Krasner at EMF agrees.