Let’s Party, and... BYOD

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Way back when in the days of yore—that would be the mid-80s to most of you youngsters—I walked into a medical facility and saw a multi-million dollar CAT scanner. When I walked around behind the machine, lo and behold I saw an IBM PC attached to it. This was the old machine with a several-megabyte hard drive, dual floppy disks and a beige CRT monitor, and it was running MS-DOS. But it was plugged into that CAT scanner to support some sort of functions the crew thought important. Well, of course, that was just the beginning.

Next, there were special versions of I/O cards that could plug into the PC’s ISA bus for various control applications. Then we started to see things like PC/104 that then ran actual RTOSs—a plethora of x86 RTOSs appeared on the market. The race was on and we now have a vibrant and growing embedded systems industry with no end in sight—except that things never really stay the same.

While there are certainly a number of strong players in the embedded market, one of the reasons that the x86 became such a dominant architecture had nothing to do with its inherent properties—in fact, it happened partly in spite of them—was the sheer size of the PC market among the general population. This made the technology, including ISA bus, PCI, USB and much more, not only inexpensive but also widely understood and thus eased the task of adapting it for more specialized applications.

Today, I am wondering if we may not be witnessing a similar phenomenon beginning to ride the crest of the wave of ARM/Android/Linux-based smartphones and tablets. The devices flying off the shelves by the hundreds of millions are having a distinct cultural impact that influences the expectations that almost everyone brings to the experience of interacting with a computer-based system. For one thing, we now take mobility for granted and that means low power, which is where ARM is definitely out in front. We expect a touch-sensitive graphic interface and, of course, we expect instant connectivity. Feeding and supporting these expectations is the unseen but vital world of universal connectivity carrying Big Data, which is coming to be known as Intelligent Systems. This world, of course, includes everything from networked small devices to enormous server farms, all accessed from everywhere.

People increasingly expect to access this world by means of their familiar phone or tablet interface, and why not? It is rich, it is interactive and it is connected. It is capable of displaying the needed data and controls as well as any specialized user interface, and can be customized to imitate them if desired. At the same time, there does seem to be a desire on the part of users to actually integrate the electronics and touch display technology into embedded systems that require a human interface, thus expanding the use of the same user experience directly in devices. So now the industrial plant manager is coming to expect that he or she can not only interact with the factory systems via a similar user interface, but also directly from the phone or tablet itself due to the ease of wireless Internet connection.

This trend seems to be popular among some in management, who see cost savings in allowing employees to use their own phones and tablets to interact with the corporate systems—both on the IT side and with connected embedded devices. Hence the expression, “Bring your own device,” or BYOD. Does anyone see a problem here? Oh right. Security. How do we keep the world of Angry Birds and personal email separate from critical corporate data and vulnerable infrastructure? While this is certainly not a new question, the inclination of companies to relinquish control over the devices employees use could present definite additional difficulties.

However these difficulties are confronted and/or resolved, we should be very aware of one thing. This is a trend that cannot be reversed. Once an idea like this takes hold, it definitely will continue. It is especially apparent in the medical field. Doctors like to use iPads, therefore iPads are entering the medical world where they are increasingly being used by nurses, technicians and other hospital personnel. They are used in record keeping and also as interfaces to sophisticated medical equipment such as scanners and patient monitoring systems. This cannot be reversed because doctors call the shots, not hospital gumshoes. It presents additional challenges for FDA compliance, challenges that will have to be met because the trend cannot be reversed.

This entire phenomenon will lead to interesting technological innovations and inventions at the hardware and software levels that try to reconcile the problems that arise as a result of the ongoing merger of the consumer with the industrial world—all of which we will closely follow in the pages of RTC.