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Survey says: Software sells the processor

Posted: 01 Jul 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:embedded systems? survey? software? tool? compiler?

On to the Big Question. When choosing a processor, what's important? What criteria do developers evaluate and what features are unimportant? At Embedded Systems Programming, we had our own preconceived notions about how the Five Psprice, performance, power, peripherals and pin-outwould rank.

The answer isnone of the above. In a recent survey, developers overwhelmingly voted for the chip's software-development tools as the most important thing when evaluating a new embedded processor. The most valuable feature of a chip is not even the chip itself. Compilers and debuggers trump MIPS and megahertz.

The survey respondents not only included software developers, but also electrical engineers, managers and programmers alike. In fact, only about one-third identified themselves as "a software person." Even when we filter the data to include only "hardware people," software-development tools still rank first. (Interestingly, the rankings do not change much, and the absolute numbers change only slightly when filtering for hardware, software or system-level people. Maybe we are all more alike than we think.)

In more personal interviews, some developers described their reliance on software tools in terms of the way a carpenter relies on the tools of his trade. Whether they are hand tools or power tools, a carpenter's tools are the things he touches. You can change the workpieceswap pine for ash, mahogany for cedarbut the tools remain the same. Likewise, embedded developers' hands touch their development tools, not necessarily the workpiece, or processor, underneath them. Take away those tools and you take away their productivity.

The survey lists the criteria that are hardware-related, with performance and price ranking second and third, respectively. The next hardware-related characteristic is down in seventh position, peripheral mix. Power consumptionoften seen as the hot topic these daysranks a dismal eighth. In contrast, the availability of OSes, hardware-development tools and third-party software rank much higher on developers' shopping lists.

It is not even close. Software-development tools are clearly, categorically and unequivocally the single most important thing about a processorany processor. For established processor vendors like Freescale, Texas Instruments and Intel, that is good news. Age has its benefits and one of them is a large and established selection of compilers, debuggers, OSes and third-party software.

For startups creating new processors, that is a serious challenge. The speeds and feeds of the chip itself may not be as important as its architects think. Few customers are qualified to evaluate the stylish nuances of a new CPU architecture, and fewer still seem to care. Like buying automobiles, few customers really weigh up the numbers in the brochure or look under the hood for anything more than a traditional show of interest and feigned competence. How many PC buyers really evaluate the specifications, vs. simply buying a brand they recognize at a price they can afford? Back in the VHS-vs.-Beta days, the details of the VCR were far less important than the availability of taped movies for it. And so it is with microprocessors. The software sells the chip.

- Jim Turley

Editor In Chief

Embedded Systems Programming

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