Thought Leadership

What is an embedded system?

By Colin Walls

I wonder how many times I have been at a party or a social function and had this conversation:
What kind of work do you do? I work for a software company.
Which one? Mentor Graphics.
What do they do? …

It is at this point that I know that I am going to have to explain what embedded software is all about. Sometimes I wonder if I should say that I have a job that everyone understands and, preferably, respects. Maybe I will claim to be an airline pilot or a police officer or a brain surgeon or a teacher. The possibilities are endless.

But, of course, I get into explaining what an embedded system is: anything that runs software that is not a computer. Then I try to give examples, which is where it gets tricky.

Some things are obviously embedded systems: routers, washing machines, photocopiers. Clearly a PC is not an embedded system, but confusingly, some components of it are: video controller, keyboard, hard drive controller etc. It gets more confusing when you look at devices like smart phones. Is an iPhone or a Palm Pre an embedded system? They certainly run dedicated software to make calls and do messaging etc., which makes them seem to be embedded devices. But you can also download and run lots of other applications, which makes them look more like handheld computers.

I guess our definition needs to become more flexible, as devices increasingly include multiple processors and embedded real time operating systems, like our Nucleus OS, become more similar to their desktop counterparts, with support for dynamic applications and outstanding graphical user interfaces.

My best approach is to simply blind people with numbers. I casually comment that a billion mobile phone handsets were made last year and 40% – that is 400 million – of them had Nucleus OS inside. I refer to the number of devices in the world – way over a billion – that contain Nucleus, which may well include things like their DVD player at home.

By this time, they have usually seen someone on the opposite side of the room with whom they really must speak …


0 thoughts about “What is an embedded system?
  • Hi Colin, I’m doing a research about embedded systems and I’m looking for a reference where I can find the most popular OS’s and languages. If possible with details about a ‘market share’.

    Could you give a clue?

    • Alex:
      There is much data available – although some of it is of very dubious quality – from some of the high-tech market research firms. But they tend to expect [non-trivial] payment. If you have funds, email me and I’ll point you in the right direction. Otherwise, you best best is to trawl some of the key websites – EE Times, etc.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at