Control Engineering's E-News Letter for Embedded Control - June 2000

06/04/2002


In this issue:


Post-PC Era

Are we entering a Post-PC Era? Is this something like the Age of Aquarius? Sometimes it looks more like an anti-Microsoft comment made by wishful competitors. I really don't think that the fantastic market growth will continue in big PCs. Look for various types of Web-enabled appliances to usurp the market share as more power is packed into smaller chips and real-time operating systems continue to grow. Lots of opportunity for new players-unless Microsoft and AOL control the market.

What does this mean in manufacturing? Look for the definition of 'PC' in PC-based Control to evolve. Even now PC can be a 'white box' or 'industrial PC' running Windows NT with (or without) real-time extensions like RTX, Intime, or Hyperkernel. It can also be a small (and ever smaller) single board computer running one of the real-time OS's like QNX or VxWorks. Sometimes a PC looks just exactly like a PLC, for instance, WinPLC from Automationdirect.com.

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Responses to Microsoft Thoughts

Judge Jackson issued the expected ruling to break Microsoft into two companies-one for operating systems and one for applications, and Microsoft entered the expected appeal. Even in issuing the ruling, the judge still expressed a wish for an out-of-court settlement. Microsoft appears so confident of victory in appeal that they have offered only a little 'give' in negotiations.

As you might expect, I received a lot of response to last month's newsletter about the situation. Many were concerned about the government intruding into businesses like this case, and some expressed dislike of Microsoft as the big bully. Many writers use real-time operating systems and avoid Microsoft as much as possible. Certainly there's some truth in all the responses.

The issue I'm concerned with is to see the great strides in interoperability and standard data exchange continue. Microsoft says that to do this, everything needs to be incorporated into the operating system (Windows). An alternative is middleware and drivers. For example, I am told that drivers are under development to port OPC to Linux. If applications and data flow can work with multiple operating systems, then the impact of any final ruling on our industry will be minimal.

 

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Embedding Linux and other stories

Linux is growing rapidly as a platform for Web servers. You'll see more of it in industrial control applications, too. Embedded and real-time Linux now come in a several varieties. In fact, Lynx Real-time Systems, makers of RTOS Lynx OS, has embraced Linux in a big way-it changed its name to LynuxWorks and developed Blue Cat Linux. LynuxWorks has combined the two products into an embedded, real-time OS implementation. Dr. Inder Singh, ceo and chairman, explained the some of the benefits:

  • an open system available from many different suppliers,

  • support for standard POSIX program application interface,

  • excellent networking support,

  • support for a wider variety of hardware devices compared to proprietary RTOSs, and

  • the UNIX process model, wherein each process has its own protected virtual address space, provides a robust foundation for building complex software applications.

See www.lynuxworks.com .

Additional Linux and Java links (lest you think I'm completely captured by Microsoft):

 

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Other interesting links

I was first introduced to the Internet via Ken Crater of Control Technology Corp. who provided access for members of the Industrial Computing Society in the very early 90's. Ken has a new site championing open systems at www.control.com . You can now find the Industrial Computing Society at www.ics.org .

Another open system site with information about Linux and open systems is www.isd.cme.nist.gov/projects/emc . The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is working with Open Modular Architecture Controller (OMAC) organization to develop open controllers. This site details the Enhanced Machine Controller.

Jim Pinto is discussingdiscusses the proposed Invensys purchase of Baan at www.jimpinto.com .

Like music? Try www.kerbango.com . It's way cool.

 

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Windows CE 3.0 (finally) arrives!

Microsoft has released the long-awaited 'real-time' version of Windows CE. See gory details at www.controleng.com/news.html .

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Response to 'Disruptive Change'

In my first newsletter in February, I discussed 'The Innovator's Dilemma,' by Christensen where he defines 'disruptive' change in a market versus 'sustaining' change. When technological change is disruptive in the market, usually new companies supplant old ones. I received this thoughtful response from Jeffrey S. Pinegar from Georgia Tech:

There are at least two conditions that must be present for a potential disruptive technology to actual take hold and disrupt an industry. The author touched on both, but failed to expound on their significance.

First, disruptive technologies 'redefined performance trajectories.' How does the PC redefine performance objective? Or are customers are still concerned with performance, reliability and price? Some will say that the PC offers customers an open solution, and that this is the new dimension. However, can reality ever approach the promise? What continues to go on in the PC/automation market is that vendors add proprietary computers, in the form of PC cards to otherwise 'open' computers, rendering them once again proprietary. In addition to the inclusion of proprietary hardware, there are software and performance concerns. With any attempt to take advantage of the 'openness' and switch hardware vendors, the user is faced with the tedious error prone task of converting or reconfiguring the software. Finally, automation equipment is inseparable from the finely tuned physical world that it is attached to. Any change in the equipment will likely be proceeded by a detailed timing analysis. Together, software rewrites/reconfigurations and timing analysis with the subsequent adjustments remove virtually any advantage gained by 'openness' and switching vendors. Is the dimension of competition changing to 'openness' or is the old cost dimension still king?

Also, to be a disruptive technology, 'the new technology [must] achieves a critical mass, usually around a new end product or way of doing business, and suddenly [established] customers want the new technology leaving their old vendors in the dust.' Existing customers are the drivers of sustaining technology. Entwined in these statements is the assumption that there is a fledgling NEW market that values the new dimension of competition over the established dimension. Is there a new market for machinery controlled by automation equipment, encouraging new machinery builders to enter the market? Or, are the old machinery builders evolving?

My conclusion is that while emotion and hype may try to convince us that the PC is a disruptive technology, a close examination will lead us to the conclusion that it is a sustaining technology. The promise of 'openness' cannot be achieved, because the machinery that is controlled is so highly optimized. And finally it is not new customers but existing customer that are driving this trend. They will drag the existing manufacturers along with them, even if they have to come kicking and screaming.

- Jeffrey S. Pinegar

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Maintaining perspective in a hectic, technological world

I met Tom Mahon at an Embedded Systems Conference. After we discussed high-tech products, we discovered a common interest in trying to maintain our perspective toward life while working in technology industries that demand so much time. He offered these insights:

'The ancients, who left us the notion of the 'golden mean,' understood science as the way to know the truth; and technology and engineering are ways to make the beautiful and to do good.

'Today we often think of beauty, truth and goodness as separated from scientific and engineering activity. But those who design and develop the control and instrumentation systems that allow society to function are in fact involved in a sacred undertaking. If 'God is in the details,' then those who make sure the details function properly are engaged in the pursuit of beauty, truth and goodness. It is more than 'civil engineering;' it is engineering for a civil society.'

Tom can be reached at tmahon@ncal.verio.com and at www.reconnecting.com . He is working with others on bringing to reality 'Engineers Without Borders' modeled on 'Doctors Without Borders.'

 

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June's Control Engineering

In July's Control Engineering , I will discuss how companies are using Web technologies in their HMI software. In a second article, I will explore a couple (the only two I've found) of signature analysis tools that integrate quality and automation with the help of the PC.

Be sure to catch late-breaking industry news at www.controleng.com.

 

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