Trade shows are a good place to hobnob with readers and developers, and to find out what new stuff the vendors have cooking. I recently attended the Embedded Systems West conference (September 29 through October 2) in San Jose. Here's a brief report on it.
ESC West was a pretty big show this year attendance was estimated at 20 per cent over what Miller Freeman (the show producers) anticipated. Evidently the embedded market is heating up. I can see three reasons why: the increasing popularity of wearable silicon, in the form of pagers, PDAs, cell phones, and who knows what; the recently initiated courtship between the Internet and embedded systems; and Moore's Law behind it all, expanding and blurring the boundaries between what is embedded and what is not. If you do any programming involving real-time or networking, don't be surprised if you wake up some morning and find yourself an embedded systems programmer.
Java was the virtual star of this year's show, where "virtual" is defined not as "all but certain" but "not really here." Ten of the 129 classes were devoted to Java, and a couple of them were packed, so you'd think there must be some really hot embedded Java demos out on the show floor. Nope. Instead, I just saw another demo of Java's magical ability to gain acceptance long before its arrival. Several vendors have expressed their determination to "make Java work" in embedded systems, which is pretty amazing considering how far it is from being practical in the current embedded environment.
If someone asked you to choose a language to be ported to an embedded system, would you pick one that was 50 times slower than C, needed 1 MB of RAM to run, and had non-deterministic timing behavior? This group of vendors have answered with a "Yes." I must conclude from all this that someone out there has a powerful thirst for Java, or something like it, either for portability's sake or as an alternative to big bad C++.
The two biggest obstacles to embedded Java are the blazing slowness of byte-code interpreters and the unpredictable timing of Java's standard garbage collector. The most likely solution is an ahead-of-time compiler that translates Java into native object code, with native code libraries that implement a more sociable garbage collector. Two vendors revealed plans to provide for ahead-of-time compilation: Cygnus Solutions (www.cygnus.com), and our own Senior Editor, P.J. Plauger (www.dinkumware.com). Plauger is working with Edison Design Group to implement a Java compiler front end. In its Java-to-C mode, it takes a less direct route to native code, but the principle is basically the same. And as Plauger explained in his talk, there are some clear benefits to having a translator spit out C when the target is an embedded system.
NewMonics, Inc. has taken a different tack on making Java embeddable. Back in August they started licensing PERC, a highly optimized Java Virtual Machine. NewMonics says PERC's garbage collector is both incremental and deterministic. Someone in high places must find PERC significant DARPA just awarded NewMonics a $1.3 Million contract for further development.
On the non-Java front, Intrinsa is bringing Prefix, their compile-time debugging product, to the embedded world (www.intrinsa.com). I've always been intrigued by Intrinsa's Software Component Simulation (SCS), the technology underlying Prefix. But clever as SCS may be, I've also wondered what it could do for you that a good lint couldn't. Maybe a lot: at the Intrinsa booth I saw Prefix flag an intermittent semaphore leak, just the sort of bug that pushes otherwise sane programmers over the edge.
You too can be an embedded OS, if you're Windows NT and you're running Imagination Systems' Hyperkernel (www.imagination.com). The Hyperkernel inserts itself between the hardware and NT, and alternates processing with NT. If NT crashes (which I know would never happen), the Hyperkernel keeps running, allowing graceful recovery from whatever ails the system.
Those of you who put away the soldering iron years ago to become code pounders may get a kick out of the Benistor, "an amazing new development in controllable electron valves" exhibited by Bensys Corporation (www.bensys.com). I confess I didn't have time to stop at their booth. From what I could gather, the Benistor is some sort of active device that's sprouted about five more leads than a normal transistor. Hook it up one way and you can levitate trains, another way and you receive transmissions from Vega.
Last and least, two guys at the Sun booth, whom I will call Dumb and Dumber, pitched their company's wares via deliberate buffoonery an annoying trend at trade shows. They got their audience to recite "If you're going to do Network Programming, you have to come to Sun." Or something like that. Trinket: a pair of toy binoculars, and they even warned us not to look at the sun with them.