Questions with too many answers

At some point, meaningful debate comes down to choices you can count on the fingers of one hand.

You know that question you heard in philosophy class: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The debate is always fun.

Scientific types argue that of course it does; sound is a compression wave in a medium like air or water, and the falling tree certainly produces sound waves. Humanities enthusiasts argue that it absolutely doesn’t because sound is a phenomenon that must be detected by a human ear. Animal lovers say their dogs have better hearing than any human and can detect the sound from several miles away. Ecologically sensitive individuals get upset that another tree just died and want a map to the location to set up a protest.

Industrial automation has its own questions right now, and the answers are just as widely varied.

Power

Everyone wants to say they’re low power. Compared to what? A nuclear power plant? A server platform? A hummingbird?

Let’s face it, low power is in the context of what’s available. If you have AC power and forced air, low power can be 50 W. If you want to be fanless, you need to be somewhere under 15 W. If you want to run on batteries or energy harvesting, you can get down into milli- and microwatt levels.

Networking

There’s very little difference between "networking" and "not working." (I was working with an OSI 7-layer networking stack at the time. It was mostly not working.) If a networking technology is too complex or won’t connect to something you want to talk to, what good is it?

Just on the wireless side of industrial networks, we have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, 900 MHz, GSM, 6LoPAN, 802.15.4, WirelessHART, ISA100, and many others. Again, choice depends on context and physics - what do you need to connect, what’s the distance between nodes, how many nodes are there, how fast does it have to be, and so forth.

But shouldn’t networking be getting simpler, conforming to a few specifications with critical mass? We want everything to be able to talk, yet we’re generating more and more protocols that perform similar jobs and creating the need for gateways, routers, and switches to move data between them.

Displays

Everyone wants to display information, but there are a variety of ways to do that. Walking around Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) Silicon Valley, there were literally hundreds of booths displaying LCD panels and hardware and software to drive them.

Now that LCD panels are easy to drive, what do we do with them? Most vendors offer some type of library to download fonts and graphics. (Interestingly, Bitstream had a booth at this year’s ESC - fonts aren’t just for the graphic department anymore.) But there are also higher-level technologies for creating Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) on small devices - Adobe Flash, Trolltech’s Qtopia, Hildon, and more. Again, these are all radically different approaches.

I understand about indecision

There are more examples - microcontrollers, operating systems, form factors, and the list goes on. Having multiple options to choose from is a good thing. And there’s the marketing value-add of being distinctive by being different.

But in any discussion, too many choices - better known as fragmentation - results in no answers and maybe more questions. At some point, meaningful debate comes down to choices you can count on the fingers of one hand.

Speaking of which, I’ve made a few selections I hope you’ll find interesting in our Editor’s Choice Products featured on page 74. You’ll see why I chose the topics of power, networking, and displays to talk about here.

All I want is to have my peace of mind, and I’m sure you do, too. Is there something you’d like us to dive deeper into that would help clear the confusion? Send me a note at ddingee@opensystems-publishing.com.