Competing with "Free" Software

Tough Survivors

As I said in the last blog entry, independent embedded C/C++ compiler companies are becoming rare birds. Of the independent companies that support multiple platforms, besides us ImageCraft, there are Green Hills (US), IAR (SE), Cosmic (FR), Rowley (UK), and… um, I think that’s it. Since being bought up, Hiware/Metrowerks primarily target Freescale chips; Hi-Tech clearly will concentrate only on Microchip’s PIC; Keil, despite being an “ARM company,” still sell tools for the 8051, C166 etc. probably because the money is good, but who knows how long that will last?… Most  if not all compiler companies were started by compiler gearheads (who else would be crazy enough to start a compiler company?) a while ago. In fact Cosmic and ImageCraft are tangentially related through our lineage with Whitsemiths. With the different product pricing and the vast number of embedded devices, most of us in fact do not compete directly with each other per se. However, there is …

The GCC Equation 

(dun dun duuuuunnnn…..)

Different embedded compiler companies “die” for different reasons, most likely financially related, and in 2009, the GCC equation must be a factor directly or indirectly. (Click on …more… to continue)

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In the Beginning…

Our first compiler product was a low cost ($39!!!) C compiler for the HC11. The ’11 was great for its time: the documentation is a standard that most CURRENT microcontroller documents could take lessons from; the chip was easy to use, even in the era of burning your own EEPROM and erasing them using UV light, and the HC11 E2 was a charmer since it has its own builtin 2K of EEPROM, back in the late 80s!

But I digress, ImageCraft had an earlier beginning. Back in the days when I was in the graduate school, I got very interested in MIT’s Rodney Brook’s subsumption architecture (*) and I did my Master thesis on a subsumption based C kernel (demonstrated with a RC-converted robot named Ripley). Then I decided to see if I can commercialize the kernel. As with all product launches, the naming took longer than the development time (ok, I exaggerated), and the kernel ended up being called REXIS, short for REal time eXecutive for Intelligent Systems. I forgot exactly how it happened, but someone at the Canada Forestry paid us a lump sum of $1500 to port REXIS to the 68000. They were embarking on a decade long project to build autonomous forest tending robots and REXIS fitted the bill, and thus ImageCraft was born… They actually sent us a VHS tape of the robot in action. It’s a huge 4 legged walking robot, able to negotiate rough terrain. I wonder if the clip is on youtube :-)

To close the story, it didn’t make much sense to sell a HC11 C kernel suitable for robotic uses when most roboticists/students could not afford a $1500 compiler, so I decided to write and sell a low cost HC11 compiler…

REXIS morphed into the simpler uExec, which we published in a Circuit Cellar article and is available on our website for several targets. One person added messaging API and another person ported it to the M16C. Unfortunately, I have not gotten these enhancements. In any case, I still have a soft spot for REXIS and I may resurrect it in a more modern form one of these days.

(*) funny enough, Brook’s eventual company started by one of his students, iRobot, is one of our customers…

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