As the PC Era took shape, Tom Peters predicted the shift away from “where all the cars are parked”. He foresaw that large, established companies would no longer be the economic engine, or the dominant force in innovation. Smaller firms, even individuals, would rise to prominence in a new, technologically-driven economy.
That turned out to be a very solid call. With semiconductors, software, and systems from new players, more jobs and more ideas started coming from new companies. This shift has accelerated as the Internet, fabless, and open source technology have further leveled the playing field and removed many barriers to entry.
In the Post-PC Era, we’ve seen the results. Smartphones and tablets exploded on the scene, pulling through more SoCs and IP and software and tools (including EDA), putting more technology firms on the list of household names. The maker movement and crowdfunding have enabled innovation on a scale never before seen, launching even more ideas.
Perhaps the biggest idea so far is the Internet of Things. Ask 20 people at random what is the IoT, and you probably get 20 slightly different to substantially deviant answers. There are certainly some leading use cases – home automation, mHealth and quantified self, connected cars, beacons, smart grid, and the list goes on – that draw a lot of discussion.
When there is no one answer, opportunity abounds. Now, we don’t even know exactly where the cars, all or just a few, are going to be parked. Gartner research analyst Jim Tully made a very prescient remark last year indicating just how wide open the IoT is for innovation:
Our research says that by 2018, 50% of the Internet of Things solutions will be provided by startups which are less than 3 years old. We can estimate what the Internet of Things will be like now. But we know that most of the things that will exist in 2018 we can’t even conceive of because they haven’t been invented yet.
We have most of the building blocks of IoT technology today – microcontrollers, operating systems, wireless sensor networks, MEMS sensors, cloud computing, and more, enabling devices to be created. In many cases however, the technology precedes the business model. It is essential to launch a new design cheaply, and likely iterate or even pivot the solution several times, before a sustainable revenue stream is tapped.
Toddling toward an uncertain future with little money in hand but a wealth of creativilty, many startups opt for open source software, often never bothering to look at commercial code – and that is a shame. Skipping past commercial code “just because” based on financial or philosophical grounds can miss what could have been a winning combination best for both the developer and the end user. I always advise my clients that cost and religion should be the last two factors in a trade study, not the first two.
Free speaks very loudly to most developers, however. What if IoT startups could gain access to proven commercial software technology, backed by decades of operating system, development tool, and microcontroller experience shipped in billions of units, for the low, low price of zero dollars to get started?
Mentor Graphics and Atmel have just teamed to launch an Atmel-enabled version of the Nucleus Innovate Program (joining NXP, ST, and TI offerings), offering free licenses of the Nucleus RTOS and Sourcery CodeBench tools targeting Atmel SAM3x and SAM4x for qualified businesses under $1M in annual revenue. Mentor Embedded is taking a proven strategy – in-depth understanding of device architecture achieved by working closely with a semiconductor vendor, reflected in an optimized kernel, compiler, and debug tools ready for prime time – and extended it from SoCs into microcontrollers.
If the trend Tully has identified holds course, and the projections of 50B or more devices are true, innovators will come from everywhere. The IoT and its startup toddler hopefuls will need a lot more tools – open source and commercial. This hybrid model, where a commercial software vendor incents startups with limited cash to design in and deploy production-ready code at no cost, may set a precedent for the next phase of innovation.