Standardization Fuels Technological Innovation

By Richard A. Quinnell

Buried within the theme of this publication, the embedded and networking uses of Intel® Architecture, lays a second theme. It was not consciously developed; it formed as a result of myriad individual choices for what to include and what to leave out of the editorial content. Reviewing the total collection, I see it now. The hidden theme underscores the importance of standards in product development.

In the thirty years I have been designing embedded systems or writing about them, I have seen considerable evolution in technology. I was excited when my first processor-based design got the chance to double its clock rate to a full one-Megahertz because a new part had come out just as the design was solidifying. By the time I reported on the first Gigahertz Intel® Pentium® processor, doubling of clock speeds had become a regular occurrence, hardly worth a special mention.

But there is an old saying: The more things change, the more they stay the same. In the electronics industry, this truism manifests itself in the repeating cycles of design methodology. With each technological improvement, design requirements become more complex, product feature sets become richer, and performance demands become greater. It would seem like an ever-growing design challenge, ultimately to become so great that it is insurmountable, but that is never the case.

Instead, the difficulty of the designer’s task surges and retreats, like waves in a rising tide. There is a period of time during which the design task is increasingly difficult as development teams struggle to find ways of solving new problems. But as they do a body of knowledge and understand grows. Common approaches to similar problems become widely understood, refined, and ultimately, standardized. These approaches can become de facto standards- determined by survival of the fittest, luck of the draw, or both. They can also become standards by collaboration within the industry through the efforts of consortia.

Once standards begin falling in place, the difficulty of the designer’s task eases to be replaced with a period of growth within the relevant application space as design efforts more readily yield results. Whole new possibilities open up because the standardized layers of the design go together quickly so designers can spend their energies on the next layer of complexity. It happened in embedded system software as programming moved from assembly-language to C and C++. It happened several times in logic design as transistor circuits became gates, gates became registers, counters, and other SSI building blocks for board design, and those in turn became cores to serve as building blocks in SOC designs - a cycle of growing complexity and function.

It is this movement to building blocks that is the key to the cycle. As complex design approaches turn into standards, they become the building blocks for creating the next level of functionality and performance. New designs quickly advance in complexity and scope, growing more capable as well as more challenging to design. When the design challenges become great enough, the industry realizes the need for a new generation of standards that will create the building blocks for the next cycle of growth.

That cycle stands at the edge of growth for several applications covered in this issue. Standardization of hardware and software is giving the networking and communications industries the opportunity to begin creating new capabilities and services for users. Similarly, standardization of serial interfaces is providing the storage industry with a framework for more powerful and reliable systems. No wonder standards form a hidden theme within this publication.

There is every reason to believe that this cycle will continue to hold true. If it does, I cannot imagine what the next thirty years will bring in technological innovation; I doubt that anyone can imagine that far ahead. But they can imagine the next step, and that is the challenge facing you now - imagining and executing the next step. Then, as new approaches become standards, go the step beyond.