Why not use a PC when building your product?

My colleague Jeff Otchis wrote a blog after returning from IDF 2010 where he commented on the diversity of “embedded” technologies at the show.  He observed many gadgets from TVs to handhelds to cash registers to automobiles.  It’s funny actually, because a couple of days later I was on the other side of the United States having people ask me why Dell was at the Embedded Systems Conference in Boston

I came across this article from *** Selwood at Embedded Technology Journal entitled Windows on Embedded.  He begins the article by using a couple of lines from Through the Looking Glass where Humpty Dumpty says “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more or less,” and Alice replies “The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.”  Although this article is regarding Windows and the software-side of “embedded computing,” I think it sets the tone for the following.  So Jeff, in the spirit of good dialog, let me answer your question as I did in Boston this year (in my best Humpty Dumpty voice).

According to Wikipedia, an embedded computer system is embedded as part of a complete device often including hardware and mechanical parts.  HOWEVER, the next line in the definition contrasts embedded with what Dell is known for—the personal computer (PC).  Which, according to wikipedia, is designed to be flexible and meet a wide range of end-user needs.  So obviously, I completely understand the confused looks and the rapid fire of questioning that I continually receive on the topic. 

Embedded to most people in the industry is quite simple—components and a specific (or a few) dedicated function(s).   As technology in everything from cell phones to arcade games to vending machines evolves at an exponential pace—computing and performance requirements increase (and increasingly converge into similar requirements—processor, memory, networking, etc.). More and more these “embedded systems” look like the insides of a PC*.  At the same time, you see a decrease in the cost of standardized PCs that are flexible enough to meet the needs of a whole gamut of products in many different industries that once used custom-built components.

*Quick disclaimer.  An embedded system doesn’t always resemble a PC, but I’m speaking in generalities.  There is always going to be a percentage of what is built out there require special components that are not off-the-shelf, like FPGA

I always answer this question with a question—why NOT use a PC (or an industrial PC)?  Dell has been helping customers for over 12 years embedded PCs into their products—from kiosk and POS to medical equipment to industrial automation technology.  These customers weighed the costs and benefits of using Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) vs. building their own or going to a white box vendor.  Unless you are in the computing hardware market, then what’s going to set YOU apart from your competitor is your intellectual property that is making that hardware make the end-users life easier in some way or another.

The great thing about wiki is it’s always growing and changing.  Check back soon for a new definition in embedded computing systems.

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About the Author: Sarah Mercer