Saturday, November 04, 2017

The Ubiquity of the Embedded Computer

In 1943, Thomas Watson, the president of International Business Machines (IBM), estimated the world market for computers to be no more than 5 computers! Given that in the 40s, the electronic computers were made using vacuum tubes and tended to be huge in size, it was possibly a realistic judgement.

However, this market was soon disrupted with the invention of the junction transistor in 1948 and soon, the vacuum tube computers were replaced with smaller semiconductor based transistors. Justifiably, the 50s saw more than 1000 computers worldwide. The next disruption came in the form of the invention of the Integrated Circuit in 1959 which led to a much larger demand due to (a) reduced size resulting from the miniaturization of the circuitry in the form of the integrated circuits as well as reduced cost and higher reliability of an integrated chip.

Even so, in the 60s and early 70s, no one had anticipated that a computer could even be a desirable item for home use but starting around 1973 with the development of Micral, computers started to find a place in a home, initially for hobby use.By the end of the 70s, hundreds of thousands of home computers were in use. Apple II, TRS80, Commodore became household names. The computer usage hit top gear in 1981 with the introduction of the IBM Personal Computer (PC). The 'open' nature of the PC led to many other manufacturers offering clones.

Till the 80s and 90s, the computer was still a visible, obvious device, if one was to notice it usually with a large keyboard, a display terminal and a mouse apart from the CPU box. Use of dedicated computers hidden inside everyday gadgets became popular from the mid 90s due to the availability, popularity and cost effectiveness of microcontrollers - a sort of computer on a single chip. Such computers embedded inside gadgets and instruments etc. were called 'embedded computers'.

Today, almost every device, household or in the office, factory floor or out on the road uses one or more of these embedded computers, silently performing a dedicated task as required by the device. Unlike general purpose computers - the desktop, laptop or your smartphone (yes! the smartphone is now a general purpose, computational device, a convergence gadget), the embedded computer boasts of a great variety in terms of size, features, computational abilities and cost all dictated by the requirement of the gadget or instrument that needs to be 'computerized'. Would you believe the small chip pictured below is actually a small embedded computer? Yes, they are!

Here is a list of items in a middle class home in India that uses an embedded computer!

Mobile phone, fixed phone, Modem, TV, Fridge, TV Remote!, Set top box, Washing machine, Microwave oven, Air conditioner, Mood lamp, Electricity (electronic) meters, water purifier, (Power) Inverter/UPS,  Noise cancelling headphones.

Even the following shaving razor boasts an embedded computer! Notice the included battery.

In a nut shell, an embedded computer is more ubiquitous than we imagine. If, in the 40s, the few computers in use in (mostly the western) world could be represented as a few discrete dots on the surface of the earth, what would today's situation be like? It would be no less spectacular than a fabric, say a saree, made up of such tiny small computers with which we have covered us all!


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