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Sunday, October 2. 2011
A continuation of my intermittent series on Emdebian and prompted by a query from Paul Wise, I thought I'd cover some of the uses to which a device running Emdebian can be put. It is a bit long this one...
So, yes, there are general purpose computers which could run Emdebian but there are common features amongst general purpose computers:
Now compare with the common features of special purpose or single-purpose computers:
So what are these mysterious single-use computers running Emdebian? It's hard to tell because the task has no particular reason to tell the user anything about the OS. Perhaps a different way to phrase the same question would be: Why use a general purpose OS for a special purpose computer?.
This is why Emdebian Grip is popular for these machines - because Emdebian Grip is binary compatible with the equivalent Debian suite and when a bug appears in the high level user interface, it is much easier to debug that on the desktop than on device. Debian stable is a fantastic OS for commercial development - the stability of the OS makes detection of interface bugs much easier. It is rare that developers have to investigate whether bugs in their UI come down to a bug in the underlying OS. That saves time.
The machines themselves? I'm sure others can come up with other examples but these are some which come to my mind (no particular order):
Anywhere where the device simply needs to DoTheRightThing in a variety of unpredictable circumstances, you're going to need a general purpose OS to gather the data and produce the right result. Anywhere where the device has only a single task, you're going to want to not provide access to the rest of the system. There's no point providing "general purpose access" when the device doesn't have "general purpose hardware". There's no point fitting general purpose hardware if the device does not use it. That is a waste of money, a waste of resources and causes unnecessary delays if one component or other becomes unobtainable or changes behaviour. Limit your exposure to hardware bugs and get the product out to the user more quickly and more reliably, everyone is happy. Fit non-standard hardware and you can fit custom hardware which better matches the profile of the device usage - why use standard speakers capable of CD quality across a vast frequency range when the device only makes very very loud alert noises which can be done at lower sample rates and with narrow range, high amplitude, speakers.
There are all sorts of estimates for the number of computers now in the average Western home. It's worth noting that the vast majority of those computers are not PCs or laptops or even game consoles and routers - all instances of general purpose machines with general purpose access / connectivity. A lot of the computers in your home are embedded in machines like white goods, media controllers (set top boxes and the like). Some of these will still use low level firmware written entirely in assembly or COBOL. More complex ones already have a general purpose OS inside yet constrain that OS with a simple, user-friendly interface which is tailored to the hardware actually fitted. It might be cool to connect to your set top box over Bluetooth but really, is that actually going to sell more units? Only if there are other high-end services written for the device which the average customer won't want to see pushing up the price of the base unit. Some machines (particularly in automotive uses) will need to be using Real Time operating systems and Safety Critical operating systems but even some of those are based on general purpose systems - just old versions which have been thoroughly tested.
Finally, consider that for a lot of these devices, the customer is not you. The customer is another business who then put the device into something else which is installed into a factory production line which produces something which goes into creating a consumer product you find in Tesco or on Amazon or bundled in with another service like your TV/broadband contract. There is absolutely no reason for these devices to provide general purpose computing to you, even if the device itself is part of something else which can provide such services.
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