Reference designs from chipmakers look more and more like finished products. What's left for the systems makers to do? E&T investigates.
Two years ago, the chipmaker STMicroelectronics (ST) decided to launch an electronic game. The company wasn't trying to emulate Texas Instruments (TI), a company that has had its fingers both in the chip business and the consumer market, through landmark products such as the Speak & Spell. ST's plan with the Primer was to stimulate design using a reference design that, complete with its display and plastic shell, was much more than a bunch of chips soldered to a board. The company even launched a website and forum for designers to talk about what they made with the Primer.
Last year, TI itself seemed to hanker after the consumer market again, launching a sports watch among other things. But none of these were aimed at consumers directly. They were launchpads for systems companies to make their own fitness products. And nVidia had both iPhone- and iPad-like devices with its own chips inside that the company used to show electronics manufacturers what the company thought could be done with its silicon. You won't find one in the shops (although some may appear on eBay).
The Consumer Electronics Show in January had plenty of reference designs for established applications and emerging ones such as tablets and e-readers. The consumer market's need for 'me-too' products in a hurry dates back to the transistor radio, as Shay Benchorin,director of marketing of the embedded software division at Mentor Graphics notes: 'Some companies innovate, like Apple, and many companies copy the ideas and try to compete mainly on price by offering similar products shortly after the innovative products are announced. I am sure you will see iPad-like products before you can buy an actual iPad from Apple.'
However, the trend towards comprehensive reference designs is extending into the embedded systems market, traditionally a more bespoke sector concerned with industrial, commercial, military and other less fashionable applications. Benchorin sees this as the result of a well-established, broader process.
'Over the last decade, I've seen an increased downward pressure at each level of the device food-chain to get a more integrated solution from the level below,' he says. 'There are three issues building this pressure: the increased complexity of the systems, such as connectivity, browsing, audio, video, etc; the increased integration and complexity of the SoCs; and fierce competition in the market that creates time-to-market stress and a relatively narrow window of opportunity to get premium dollars before the device becomes commoditised.'
TI has been one of the companies aggressively launching such reference packages in the run-up to March's embedded world show in Nuremberg. Jean-Anne Booth, director of worldwide marketing for its Stellaris microcontroller (MCU) products, says the trends Benchorin identifies have had an inevitable impact on what embedded engineers can these days hope to achieve themselves.
'System engineers once had more discretionary time to learn new technologies, but market pressures have made such 'technology playtime' an unaffordable luxury,' she says.
'They have also compressed the traditional tradeoff triangle. You can have it fast, cheap or functional pick any two into an incredible pressure pot that forces system engineers to focus on cheap ways to solve problems. One method is to rely on reuse.'
And that means turning to a semiconductor manufacturer's reference design.
Rich Hoefle, marketing manager of the high-performance MCU division at Microchip Technology, agrees: 'The rate of technological change and the increasingly competitive marketplace drive the need for reference designs,' he says. 'In some cases, they provide an educational component for someone new to the application space or technology. Others use them to shorten the design cycle and focus their scarce engineering resources on their companies' unique value added.'
Moreover, the embedded market is not only being pushed towards ARM's IP. Keith Odland, MCU marketing manager for Silicon Labs highlights a further example in the expansion of touch screens and advanced user interfaces from consumer to industrial markets.
'It is important to demonstrate the new product/technology paradigm in the context of the application. Human interface designs such as multi-touch and proximity sensing are examples of applications that warrant comprehensive reference designs,' he says.
'For the specific human interface example, it's the software and the way in which the embedded controller interprets and uses the information from a capacitive surface that really makes a smartphone interface unique. Making that interface reliable and functional in a wide range of environmental conditions requires considerable design expertise, which takes time and money to acquire. Bundling that expertise with product hardware in the form of software is something that customers perceive as valuable.'
Odland hits upon the second part of what is making reference designs so critical to vendors' marketing. Before you get to the 'how to', you have to satisfy the 'show me' requirements of customers who are being confronted by technology that, if not supported, sets a daunting and expensive learning curve.
As Tony King-Smith, marketing vice president for the Technology Division of IP specialist Imagination Technologies, points out, you cannot conclude the show-and-tell just after proving that your technology works. You have to demonstrate that using your part means being well on the way to production.
'Much of the burden is now falling on semiconductor suppliers to get customers as close to production-ready as possible,' King-Smith says. 'Too many people simply don't have the engineering resources or time themselves to translate reference designs to production quality.'
A lot of this does come down to the end-customer. As Daniel Yoo, public relations manager for Marvell, says, you can sometimes draw the line here according to size.
'Larger customers typically have more development capability and look for more ways to differentiate their products, hence the emphasis [there] on evaluation kits,' he says. 'On the flip side, smaller customers request more of a 'plug-and-play' model. Factors such as time-to-market are key differentiators for them and reference designs are more along the lines of what they're looking for.'
However, Roger Edgar, business development manager for Freescale Semiconductor, notes that sometimes you can also draw it by application.
'In some markets, 100 per cent solutions are required. Others require only core functionality that is field-proven and then they can concentrate on their distinct IP to make a unique offering in a shorter period of time,' he says. 'Both strategies are used by customers today in fact, both strategies have been employed by the same customer.'
A further factor in the rise of the reference design comes down to where the fastest growing parts of the embedded and consumer markets are located right now in the Far East. System companies tend to be smaller and have far fewer technical resources generally.
The chip vendors are being forced to become system vendors as the market pushes more of the technological burden to the beginning of the supply chain.
It is the cost of doing business and it has an echo in a tale once told by a senior executive with an advanced processor company. 'We'd tell people we had this incredible flexible configurable device and they'd look and they'd say, 'That's nice. How about you go away and configure it for me'.