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The Internet of Things Gets a New OS

by IEEE SpectrumOctober 9, 2014

Illustration: Getty Images

British processor powerhouse ARM Holdings, said last week that it intends to launch a new, low-power operating system that will manage web-connected devices and appliances using chips based on the company’s 32-bit Cortex-M microcontrollers. 

The operating system, called mbed OS, is meant to resolve productivity problems that arise from fragmentation—where different devices in the so-called “Internet of things” (IoT) market run on a hodgepodge of different protocols. ARM is looking to consolidate those devices under a single software layer that’s simple, secure, and free for all manufacturers to use.

“Instead of having large teams spending years designing a product,” ARM vice president of research and development Kriztian Flautner told the BBC
, “we’d like to turn that into months, so that you can take the [hardware] components, assemble the right ones, connect the device and focus on the problem you are solving and not the means to getting there.”

In the last few years, ARM has made a push to develop more technologies designed for IoT products. In a Pew survey this past spring, 83 percent of respondents thought the future of IoT would help improve their lives. Gartner, a tech research firm, recently predicted that by 2020 there will be 26 billion Internet-connected devices, an almost 30-fold increase from 2009.

However, this is the first operating system ARM has ever developed.

The mbed OS supports several standards of connectivity, including Wi-Fi, Bluethooth Smart, Thread, and a sub-6-gigahertz version of 6LoWPAN. It also supports many cellular standards, including 3G and LTE. At the same time, ARM is launching mbed server software, which the company says will allow users to gather and analyze data collected from IoT devices.

The OS was designed with power efficiency and battery life in mind. ARM claims it will only take up 256 kilobytes of memory, compared to the several gigabytes worth of storage needed for a smartphone OS. The company hopes developers will use mbed to create devices with battery lives measured in years.

Parts of the OS will be open source, though ARM says it wants to retain control of other parts to ensure mbed remains unfragmented. A recent EETimes study reports that in-house and custom designed systems for IoT devices are on the decline. Open source code already runs in 36 percent of embedded operating systems and is projected to keep rising, with Android and FreeRTOS leading the pack. ARM seems to be trying to balance the advantages of development flexibility with proprietary control, but it remains to be seen how well that plays out.

Chris Rommel from the VDC Research group also told the BBC that while he believed most companies would welcome this news, it was unlikely the mbed OS would find its way into all IoT devices. “There will likely never be any one operating system—or even two or three—that can satisfy the broad ranges of needs of all the various devices that compose the Internet of things. They are just too different.”

Already there are some big appliance makers who are sure to resist the mbed OS. GE employs the software Predix in almost all its IoT products, and Samsung is heavily invested into using Tizen for its family of IoT devices. Nest Labs’s products run on a proprietary software based on Linux, though that’s likely to shift to Android soon due to company’s acquisition by Google.

However, that hasn’t squelched enthusiasm from other companies yet. ARM will release the OS to hardware manufacturers and other developers before the end of the year, and says 25 companies have already signed up, including Ericsson, Freescale, IBM, NXP, and Zebra. The first devices to use mbed OS are expected to arrive in 2015.

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IEEE Spectrum
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