Motorola Gets Embedded
This is an invisible and often unglamorous segment, involving the sale of computer boards into pretty much any machine that isn't a PC. The business consists of hundreds of small companies whose products target specific market segments such as dental equipment or industrial robotics... and telecom systems.
It's a fragmented market full of customized products, meaning no one's been able to become the Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) or Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) of embedded computing. "We don't have that structure in embedded," says Wendy Vittori, general manager of the Motorola Computer Group. "One of the biggest impediments is this very disparate set of applications."
Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) doesn't necessarily aspire to Microsoft-like dominance, but the company does think it can help push standards into reality and in the process take up more of the market, particularly when it comes to telecom. That's the reasoning behind deals such as the acquisition of Netplane Systems Inc. early this year (see What's Motorola Doing With NetPlane?).
Vittori toured the world last month trying to publicize Motorola's role in standards-building and to introduce one new idea in particular. Motorola is expanding its Multi-Service Packet Transport (MXP) platform to include ready-made systems loaded with software, a move that mirrors similar prefab box programs in areas such as enterprise switches (see Motorola Unveils Services Platfiorm and Marvell's Ethernet Switch Kit).
On an industrywide level, companies are pushing efforts such as the Service Availability Forum or the Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture (TCA) backplane standard being crafted by the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG). The latter has been gaining attention in the chip world this year, with Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and others pledging support.
Such standards are putting particular emphasis on reliability and high availability, two of the areas where off-the-shelf products have traditionally been lacking.
The drive is fueled in part by envy of the standards that have sped up progress in the enterprise/PC world. New ideas -- Gigabit Ethernet, for example -- quickly morph into standards. "Within three years, people coalesce to something," Vittori says. "They see that if everybody does something different, it's going to kind of blow the scheme."
Standards -- or, alternatively, a move towards off-the-shelf systems rather than customized ones -- would certainly help Motorola's business, as the company would be able to reuse designs across several market segments, Vittori says. But the idea holds some benefits for customers, too.
In theory, standard platforms would be simpler to work with -- a key factor as companies continue to lay off engineers. Standards could also shorten the development cycle for a system, which sits at 30 to 48 months, she says.
There's also the fact that customization is falling out of vogue. Even groups such as the U.S. Department of Defense have increased their use of off-the-shelf components and systems.
In the end, this could change the business model for embedded computing. Today, vendors produce a board, toss it to the market, and let customers figure out how they could use it. That's how the semiconductor industry used to operate as well.
Now, as with chips, embedded computing firms want to tailor products to specific needs, a more "anticipatory" way of designing, Vittori says. This would let Motorola make changes more rapidly. "The equipment guys will say, 'Well, if it had this...' " she says. "But if we're into the chip already, it's an 18- to 24-month development cycle to get that feature in."
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading