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Android's Potential as an Embedded OS

Android is a fairly amazing phenomenon due to the sheer number of devices that run it. However, it appears to be growing in popularity in another realm of technology – embedded applications. Embedded devices refer to items with a more specific purpose such as anything from a digital oscilloscope to a GPS – they are not meant to run general purpose apps or typically deal with software upgrades and foreign applications. Of course, the nature of embedded and non-embedded devices is starting to blur and as such the world’s most popular mobile operating system may have a future in a host of other types of devices.

The EE Times has announced that Android has become the most popular third-party operating system for the embedded market. A survey showed that it was used in 16% of embedded projects and ahead of systems such as FreeRTOS and Ubuntu Linux, while most projects opt for in-house operating systems. Of course, this finding need to be qualified by the fact that a smaller percentage of respondents compared to the previous year believed that they would be using Android within the following 12 months. A panel at the recent Android Builders Summit engaged in a discussion of Android’s potential embedded future. Many panelists expressed doubt about the viability of Android with embedded systems as it essentially consists of the Linux kernel with mod ifications that make it effective for mobile, and several other layers that optimize it for low-power touch interface systems. Embedded devices typically require minimalism and for traditional embedded devices too much has to be trimmed from Android to make it effective.

However, our definition of an embedded device is undergoing a transformation itself. Texas Instruments, famous for its calculator lines, has started adding Android support to its embedded CPUs. Also, many technologists project that we are on the verge of building an “Internet of Things,” a state of increased connectivity in almost every aspect of our lives. For instance, some envision that we will ingest non-invasive capsules in order to monitor for medical problems. A traditional embedded sensor may not have any need for internet connection, geolocation, or tilt sensitivity, hallmarks of the Android platform, but one being used as part of the “Internet of Things” might.

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