I'm just back from the Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose, and what a joy it was–but not in the way you might think.
It was not because I met old friends there (I did), nor because I scored great freebies on the show exhibit floor (I didn't). It was because an event like ESC reminds me that there is still interesting and innovative design work going on in engineering, beyond those high-profile consumer products such as cell phones and large-screen TVs. Not that there is anything wrong with those, but super-high volume products such as those exist in their own environment, at the tree top level, you might say.
Down here on the ground, where ESC lives (and the recent DesignCon is a similar example) you have a diverse array of vendors at all facets of the process. There are board makers, operating systems (mostly real time), high-reliability OS's, development systems, hardware and software debuggers, compilers, specialty probes, and much more. Although there are some larger vendors, many of these vendors are smaller companies who will listen to your request for a special twist on what they offer, even if you are not planning a production run of thousands per week.
Since the volumes of many of the products shown at ESC, and of the customers for these products, is modest, you also don't fiund the emphasis on more highly integrated silicon to solve the problem; it simply doesn't make economic sense. Instead, you see vendors using standard ICs supported by some programmable devices to tailor systems to the market segment in which they are competing and hoping to win. It's a case of bigger not necessarily being better. Here, the race may be to the swift or clever, rather than just the strongest or biggest.
There is a problem with events such as ESC: they get little coverage in the general media, since they don't have a lot of high-profile exhibitors, speakers, or products. For me, this is a welcome contrast to media-centric shows such as the Consumer Electronics Show, but that's just my view. Even ESC has succumbed to some extent to media envy. One of this year's keynote speakers was Al Gore. Regardless of what you think about his global warming campaign, there's no doubt he gets the media attention. So it was not surprising to see that most of ESC was ignored, while his speech got the attention.
I suppose it will always be this way, as it has been for so many years in the engineering profession. Those who labor hard and long in the trenches, often doing incredible work, get far less attention than those who talk about what others have done. But that may be the price we always pay to see facets of real engineering, geared to solving practical problems (as embedded systems often do), and with end-product lifetimes of years, rather than months.
Contrast that with a news release from CES, where some rapper was allegedly designing a cell phone. Excuse me, but he was just decorating the phone's case, yet the media treated him as if he was sort of talented genius for his very modest contribution. The phone's design was done by hundreds of electronic, mechanical, manufacturing, and other engineers, conveniently ignored by the press. I'll take substance over hype, any day!