Thought Leadership

Embedded software for free

By Colin Walls

I recently attended a funeral, after which was a lunch. When the guests had finished eating and had begun to visit the bar less frequently, I stood up and tapped a glass with a spoon to request everyone’s attention. I explained my favorite maxim: TANSTAAFL – There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. For them, the price was listening to me rambling on for a few minutes.

I firmly believe that there is very little that you can get truly for free in the world, even though the cost may not always be apparent. People even expect that software might be free …

I have a number of friends, who have smart phones and/or tablets and proudly proclaim “I never pay money for apps.” They will exclaim when they hear that I have paid $1.99 for a useful app and ask whether there is a free version. There are strong technical arguments against many “free” apps – they display adverts and use up bandwidth [and battery!] by downloading the necessary information. This is not unreasonable, as the app needs to be paid for somehow. Developing software is a complex, skilled activity and it takes a lot of time. All of this equates to money. I find that most consumer software, on desktops as well as mobile apps, is fantastically cheap, considering the cost of development.

In the world of embedded software, there is still a demand for free software – tools, RTOS, whatever. This is ironic because the demand comes from engineers, who are very familiar with the effort involved in developing and supporting complex software. It is a classic example of how people negotiate quite differently when they are buying compared with when they are selling.

What are the key reasons why embedded software tools and IP should have a real price ticket? Here are some:

  • You are making a long term investment, using some tool/IP for a device. Investing needs care.
  • Support must be available. Relying on a community is not good business sense.
  • For some purposes, software needs to be validated – for example, compliance with standard communications protocols.
  • Some embedded applications need to be certified [for safety etc.] – this requires a good quality product with backup.

The list goes on. The bottom line is that, with embedded software, like so many things in life, you tend to get what you pay for.


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