England, viewed from the stratosphere

Analysis: electronica shifts emphasis

E&T notes that a trade show once dedicated to electronic components is shifting its emphasis towards software and the virtual world.

As you read this, Europe's silicon analysts will be starting to pore over events - and traffic - at Electronica 2010 in Munich (9-12 November), Europe's huge biennial trade show.

The event's size makes it an indisputable bellwether of the state-of-play in European electronics. In 2008, it attracted a little shy of 75,000 visitors to stands spread over 12 halls and 160,000m2 of exhibition space.

So, Electronica will help define how our region is exiting the recession. But perhaps more interestingly, this is a show in search of its future. As it addresses that challenge, it could provide some clues to the longer-term shape of Europe's high-technology design sector.

Traditionally, Electronica has been seen as a components and distribution show. It was somewhere to either add brand-new part numbers or roll out existing devices in volume in Europe. Board-level reference designs were important, typically in the form of modules for integration into broader systems. Then, it was a place to network contacts and finalise contracts.

Almost all of these goals have changed. Most devices are today announced electronically and globally with customers alerted via websites and emails. Regional releases simply do not work in the age of the Internet. How could they when a design specified in the UK might well include contributions from India and the USA before being manufactured in China.

Reference designs are also expected to be more complex, delivering nearly the entire application, with customers differentiating their wares through the addition of a good-looking user interface and some proprietary software.

And, of course, networking is being virtualised. Evidence of this can be found in the approach being adopted by Farnell, one of the world's biggest component distributors, which recently launched element14, an online design community. The company's Electronica programme seems to have been designed as support for that new venture more than anything else.

Farnell's showcase demos in Munich will not feature nuts-and-bolts projects you might sell on the day. Rather, they head into the blue skies (in one case, literally). They include TUlip, the research venture at three Dutch universities to build a robotic total football player, and the Icarus Project, the homebrew brainchild of Yorkshire-based IT director Robert Harrison that uses low-cost materials to send a balloon into the stratosphere and capture extraordinary images of the Earth from space.

'We're taking a different approach at this year's Electronica,' said Marianne Culver, Farnell's head of Global Supplier Management. 'The activities, products and demonstrations on our stand will generate interest and fun while underlining how Farnell can, through its depth and breadth of product range and an innovative state-of-the-art eCommunity element14, provide the perfect partner for engineers tasked with creating the next generation of innovative products.'

In other words, the virtual world is wagging the real one.

Elsewhere, Electronica's organisers are looking to build up the show's role in the embedded systems market, particularly for software.

As an event dominated by components, it has arguably but understandably been slow to react to the fact that the investment in software design for a major electronics project is now greater than that for the silicon design - and Electronica already faces stiff local competition from Embedded World, a rival event that takes place annually in Nuremberg and is one of the few trade shows to have defied the last downturn.

The strand that Electronica is offering for embedded systems does have strong backing from Microsoft. But it is only one player in a crowded space and does not claim anywhere near the dominance there that it has in desktops. Another software 'highlight' cited by organisers is measurement and test software from Göpel for the MicroBlaze from Xilinx and the Cortex A8 Core from ARM. There will be focus areas of topics like virtualisation - the running of multiple operating systems on multicore platforms - but it all feels a bit modest.

Moreover, in the same week that Electronica is taking place in Munich, that shaker in the intellectual property cores business ARM has opted to run its own developer conference in Santa Clara, California. A different regional market admittedly, but that show could pull away many of the major announcements and executives in the microcontroller space that has historically also been a big electronica market.

So, the Munich event has its work cut out and will be closely watched. Check back in a few weeks and the picture should be clearer - both for the future of the business and its biggest European gathering.

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