All I want for Christmas is a platform

What's on your holiday wish list? An Android or iOS mobile device might be all you need—it can serve as a phone, contact list, watch, calendar, e-mail client, book, browser, navigation aid, flashlight, even a spectrum analyzer.

Special-purpose devices are going away, according to Mike Santori, business and technology fellow at National Instruments. Speaking at an NIDays event in Boston last month, Santori described a programmable world in which a single device can implement many virtual functions.

In that, Santori echoed a claim made by Eric Starkloff, senior vice president of marketing at NI, at NIWeek in Austin in August. “Custom hardware design is dead,” he said, concluding that the future belongs to platform-based design and the community that has arisen to extend and support it.

And in an interview in our August print edition, Starkloff had said that successful engineers are either building a platform (for example, engineers at Apple, Google, or Samsung) or building on a platform. “It’s very difficult to have the position in between,” he said. “For example, it’s hard to be a GPS hardware vendor.”

Indeed. However, I still find use for dedicated hardware. I still wear a wristwatch, and I can't rely on my Android device as an alarm clock—it occasionally shuts itself down and requires a battery-pull to get started again.

In an interview following his NIDays presentation in Boston, Santori agreed that there are some functions that are still best served by dedicated devices. “I'll give you a perfect example,” he said. “My wife and I like to go hiking backpacking, and I'm not going to rely on my phone as my sole navigation device.” However, he said, “I can tell you for example that I don't have a GPS in my car any more for everyday use.”

Further, he noted, you can still buy dedicated game consoles—although some are selling better than others. And in a report released today, IHS, referring to the burgeoning over the top (OOT) device market, said, “The only segment not forecast to grow this year is the handheld game platform. Like other single-tasking systems, the space is under attack from more broadly based general-purpose equipment, primarily smartphones and tablets.” (See related item from last December, “Remorseless rejection of single-task devices threatens e-readers.”)

Santori cited some drawbacks of using your phone as a watch—you need to remove it from your pocket and activate the display, which drains the battery. Similarly, you need to take similar steps to see who just sent you a text message or e-mail.

But, Santori said, when developers identify such problems at the barriers between standard platforms and custom hardware, they inevitably work to add missing functionality to the standard platform—consider the Samsung Galaxy Gear Smartwatch. Although currently a complement to, rather than replacement for, a smartphone, it indicates the types of innovation that will continue to occur as platforms become ever more capable.

Our February 2014 print issue's Executive Insight column will include more commentary on Santori, particularly on Big Analog Data. You'll find it online in late January.

Also, if your friends and family want more than a platform for Christmas, the folks at NI have some gift ideas here. (Socks? No, thanks. Model steam engines? Yes!) To wrap your gifts, you can even print out some graphical-system-design block-diagram wrapping paper.

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