Android, meet fridge. Fridge, Android


"Hello, it's your fridge here. You need more milk. And, have you ever considered emptying out that yoghurt? It's getting a bit rank in here."

Yes, it's the return of the internet fridge. Now powered by Android.

Mentor Graphics, which sells tools for embedded systems, has bought small startup Embedded Alley Solutions, which specialises in Linux and Android tools. Mentor normally buys a company during the week of the Design Automation Conference (DAC) and this year is no exception. But if you were expecting Magma Design Automation to be the target. Well, that didn't happen.

The plan is to promote Android as software that can be used in home appliances, information displays in cars and medical systems. In reality, the fridge will probably remain as Internet-free as it has done for the past 50 years. But there are other embedded systems that could make use Android.

By running Mentor's existing Nucleus operating system on one or more cores in a multicore processor, Android can take care of a lot of the user-interface functions while the Nucleus bit looks after the real-time stuff. Instead of having to work with graphics libraries and low-level code, you just put a lot of what the user will deal with into Java or bung most of it into a browser-based application. Compared with something like an iPhone or Palm Pre, the Android interface is still a bit clunky but there is a reasonable prospect that software writers will improve that as Android phones become more common.

You've got to like Mentor CEO Wally Rhines' style here: while Wind River is saddled with the job of pushing Intel-approved Moblin - which hardly anybody has heard of - into the appliance business, Mentor can employ a software environment that a lot more engineers will have encountered. OK, Android isn't in many handsets but it's still in front of way more people than Moblin. Something I have argued in favour of for a number of years is that what most embedded applications really need is a half-decent scripting environment that lets teams prototype the user interface while leaving the core functions untouched. This lets companies contract out the industrial design, which can include the user interface, while the important bit that does the job - such as controlling a wash cycle - remains within the core team.

There is one small problem with Mentor's plan at this stage. Embedded Alley has, so far, focused on MIPS processors rather than ARM or Intel architectures. I've nothing against MIPS but most of the action is going to take place around the other two simply because of the momentum that the mobile handset business has. The handset business provides the volume needed to make complex multicore processors cheap and it's relatively simple to divert those devices into other markets. This is the plan that Texas Instruments has followed with its OMAP devices. You have to know the secret mobile-maker's handshake to buy some OMAPs but others have been repackaged for the wider embedded business.

However, I would expect Mentor to place more emphasis on ARM and Intel once Embedded Alley is part of the fold.