Attendees of International CES came across in their show directories page after page of companies from all over the world listed under the mysterious heading "Embedded Technology." The natural question was — what's embedded technology? And why should you care?
What kind of chocolate chip cookies do you like — those made with Hershey's morsels or Nestlé's?
That's not a non-sequitur. Those chocolate morsels are the cookie equivalent of embedded technologies. They are the ingredients that make chocolate chip cookies chocolate chip cookies.
In other words, embedded technologies are what's inside a device that perform specific functions. An embedded technology can be software, chips or chip sets, systems, anything that enables that device to perform a particular task. This embedded technology, which may itself be branded like (e.g. winter coats embedded with Gore-Tex for waterproofing) or made by a company you've never heard of, is usually hidden behind a branded package curtain, sort of what Professor Marvel is to the Wizard of Oz.
Not surprisingly, each company listed in the CES guide under Embedded Technologies has its own definition of what embedded technology is, depending on what that company makes.
"An embedded technology is usually embedded as part of a complete device including hardware and mechanical parts," said Rebecca Parr, marketing communications and marketing intelligence manager for Synaptics, a developer of human interface solutions. "In contrast, a personal computer can do many different tasks depending on programming. Since the embedded system is dedicated to specific tasks, design engineers can optimize it, reducing the size and cost of the product, or increasing the reliability and performance."
"A great example of such technology is Bluetooth," offered Oleg Logvinov, president and CEO of Arkados, a fabless powerline semiconductor maker. "With Bluetooth, consumers do not care how it works, but they do get what they want — a headset that works with the phone without any wires."
"Our definition of 'embedded technology' is embedding a feature or function within a device, with either soft or hard IP, eliminating the need for additional devices on the board," opined Per Holmberg, marketing director of Xilinx, which makes programmable logic devices (PLDs), an electronic component used to build digital circuits.
Pinning down an elusive 25-words-or-less definition isn't as important as understanding that embedded technologies, also known perhaps more accurately as enabling technologies, is one of the fastest-growing segments of the consumer electronics industry.
"Embedded technology is essential to the product functionality of the vast majority of the products at CES and to making them work at the touch of a button," simplified Karen Chupka, events and conferences senior VP for the Consumer Electronics Association. "The number of embedded technology exhibitors at CES has grown exponentially in the past three years. This year over 300 exhibitors will showcase a wide range of embedded technology products at CES." That is nearly twice as many embedded technology exhibitors than last year, and triple the number of companies who exhibited in 2006.
Embedded technologies are what differentiate the simple gadgets of yesteryear to today's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink devices.
"Consumer electronics used to be about stand-alone things that you plugged into a wall or put batteries into and it did something — a transistor radio, a CD player, a camera," said Joel Espelien, strategy and chief business officer VP for PacketVideo, whose multimedia software are embedded in more than 170 million mobile devices worldwide and who demonstrated at CES PVConnect, which is DLNA-certified media server software that enables seamless sharing of media between a variety of compatible devices.
"But increasingly, gadgets people are buying are little Internet devices or appliances that connect to other stuff. Consumers care more about the services than about the widget itself. Yes, a retailer is trying to sell a gadget in a box. But the consumer is buying the service, and that's a sea change in the consumer electronics business. Cameras now send my photos up to Flickr. As a retailer, you need to be able to articulate how that works and show how it works in action. Showing a display camera no longer does it for me."
CES served as a matchmaker for unfamiliar embedded technology companies and the well-known finished goods manufacturers. It also provides an opportunity for retailers to become familiar with the growing list of ingredients inside the increasingly complex widgets they sell.
"If I were a retailer, I wouldn't care if this was embedded technologies or fruit boxes," admitted John Hammer, president of CastGrabber, a $99.99 device that pulls podcasts out of the air without an intervening PC. "What's important is, knowing these technologies help me know what the high-level trends are. It makes me more knowledgeable about selecting product that might fly off the shelf next season."
"Knowing about embedded technology can help retailers differentiate products that consumers have an interest in," echoed John Polivka of Sprint Xohm WiMAX service that is due to roll out in major cities during the second quarter.
"If I have two music players and one has a Rhapsody inside and the other Apple iTunes inside, knowing the difference is fundamental to my buying decision," added Espelien, "not simply which one is black and which one is white. Consumer electronics products are becoming similar. Consumers have to know what's inside each device to understand what it's capable of doing."
The explosion in specialized functionality is leading inexorably toward devices that have either have one primary definable purpose and a bunch of other functions that can be added it — think of the Google Android Open Handset Alliance cellphone platform or even the iPhone once third-party application providers unleash their widgets next in the coming months — or gadgets with no definable purpose at all.
"Embedded technologies to us refers to dedicated hardware components running specialized applications and services," asserts Peter Semmelhack, founder/CEO of CES exhibitor Bug Labs. "Bug is an embedded technology in the sense that via any assortment of snap-on specialized components and software applications, a general purpose machine is transformed into a unique consumer electronics device."
If the precise definition of embedded technologies still escapes you, forget everything that was just said. What's important is putting yourself into the shoes of a consumer being bombarded by a new generation of devices copiously endowed with mysterious and seemingly useless capabilities. Don't get bogged down with the embedded technology — stick with the functionality benefits.