Crafting the Future: The Role of Software, Firmware, and RTOS in Product Development

In the exciting journey of new product development, understanding the digital backbone that powers our gadgets is crucial. In this series of posts, we’re navigating the complex but fascinating world of software, firmware, and RTOS (Real Time Operating Systems) and their contributions to product success.

This post will define the roles of software, firmware, and RTOS (Real Time Operating Systems), shedding light on their respective strengths in bringing innovative products to life. 

The Basics

Electronic devices, from a simple keyfob to a sophisticated smartwatch, must be told how to behave and react to a myriad of inputs. Generating those instructions is called programming.

Simple instructions can be programmed directly onto a microprocessor. We call those instructions firmware. Programming more complex behaviors benefits from a layer of abstraction that we call an operating system. The operating system provides common tools and shortcuts for the programmer, making it more practical and efficient for coding complex instructions. When you write code for an operating system, you are writing software.

Firmware: The Foundation

Firmware can be thought of as permanent instructions programmed into the electronic hardware. It’s the code that runs when a device is powered on. For simpler devices (e.g., keyfob) firmware is all that is needed. For more complicated devices (e.g., smartphone) the firmware exists as the foundation on which an operating system, such as Android for a smartphone, is deployed. We sometimes use the phrase “bare metal firmware” in cases where there is no operating system to reinforce the difference between firmware and software.

Software: The Toolbox

Software is code that runs on an operating system. This provides benefits that make it invaluable for implementing complex behavior.

  1. Operating systems and software may be deployed on different hardware. For example, an Android app should run equally well on a Samsung or a Pixel smartphone.
  2. Operating systems provide a lot of tools, like address protection and threading, that allow multiple processes to occur at once. Firmware is impractical for that level of complexity.
  3. Libraries of functions exist, making common behaviors trivially easy to implement. Determining the coordinates of a mouse-click would require a lengthy block of code in firmware, but is a single line of code in software.

On the downside, operating systems require a lot of resources, both in terms of electrical power and expensive electronic components.

RTOS: The Timekeeper

For some mission-critical devices, timing is everything, and a Real Time Operating System or RTOS can be a solution for those products. An RTOS is essentially a very pared-down operating system, a compromise between firmware and a full operating system. 

The RTOS can supply a few of the most useful tools of an operating system but is otherwise optimized for raw speed. Medical, defense, and certain industrial devices rely on RTOS for the best balance of power, reliability, and responsiveness.

Examples of Porticos products utilizing bare-metal firmware.

Navigating the Choices

The choice between software, firmware, and RTOS depends on your specific requirements.

    • For simple, low-cost, or low-power devices, bare-metal firmware is the best route, offering straightforward and efficient control with minimal overhead.
    • When your product demands complex functionality, connectivity, or user interfaces then software running on an operating system (e.g., embedded Linux) provides a powerful environment capable of supporting any application.
    • In scenarios where speed and reliability are crucial, such as life-saving medical devices or critical industrial controls, an RTOS allows your device to meet those stringent requirements.

    Solution Speed Cost Power Consumption Implementation Complexity 
    Firmware Fast Cheap Low Difficult to implement complex behavior
    RTOS Fast More expensive More power-hungry Easier to implement complex behavior
    Software Slower Most expensive Most power to run Practical to implement extremely complex functions

    Conclusion

    The journey from concept to finished product is a delicate balance of technical choices, each influencing the functionality, user experience, and profitability of the final product.  As we’ve seen, software, firmware, and RTOS each represent a valuable strategy for a segment of the digital device ecosystem.

    Embarking on a new product development project is an adventure filled with technical decisions that can shape the future of your creation and your company. If you’re seeking support with specific technologies or development approaches consider reaching out to Porticos for more insights.

    The next post in this series will explore the Integrated Development Environment (IDE) that makes it practical to generate code for a stand-alone device.

    XL200P Exploded View

    About Porticos

    A WORLD OF OPTIMIZED PRODUCTS

    Porticos, Inc. is a Product Engineering and New Product Development firm located in Research Triangle Park, NC.

    Established in 2003, Porticos produces innovative and effective solutions for their clients and the markets they serve. Porticos provides broad expertise in development, planning, and production. 

    Contact us for more information or support bringing your idea to market.