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Firmware Vs Embedded Software

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What’s the difference between Firmware vs Embedded software? Can you use the term interchangeably and does it really mean the same thing?

There seems to be so much confusion in the industry around this topic (just Google it and you’ll see!) that the lack of clarity can make it harder for management and engineering teams to communicate efficiently.

So in today’s article, we’ll explain the differences, and when it matters most that you get the term right.

What makes us the expert? Witekio has been in the industry for over 20 years and worked on thousands of embedded system projects, from design to build and maintenance. We always work with a user-centric approach – meaning we make sure the software works seamlessly test.

Read on to find out:

  • What is firmware?
  • What is embedded software?
  • The key difference between embedded software and firmware
  • Embedded software examples
  • Firmware examples

What is firmware?

Ask anyone what hardware and software are, and most people will know that hardware is “what you can kick” (the device itself) and software is the ‘stuff’ inside it that makes your applications run.

What they don’t know is that it’s not actually software that ensures all the programmes and functionality work with your hardware – that’s the operating system, device drivers and firmware.

Firmware is simply software that’s tightly integrated with a specific chipset or piece of hardware.

The firmware acts as a bridge between drivers (operating system) and hardware. It’s a connector that ensures both sides work with each other to get the job (or functionality) done.

Generally, firmware needs to be small and compact to be stored in the limited non-volatile storage associated with a particular chipset/piece of hardware. Until the firmware is running on the device, device drivers, operating systems and applications won’t be able to use that hardware.

Many hardware devices can be configured in a variety of ways, for example, your Wi-Fi chip may allow different frequencies in the UK than in the USA – often that’s done by the operating system loading different firmware onto it.

A bonus of firmware is that it’s often designed to make sure that no one can alter its behaviour, meaning it adds a layer of security to your product.

Firmware examples

All smart tech has firmware in it – your home appliances, medical devices, connected industrial machinery – and they include this firmware so that you don’t have to upload the software every time you want to use it.

For example, smart lights often include a firmware chip that works with the hardware to enable your smartphone application to change the light colour, turn it on and off, or do anything else you can command it to.

In most examples of Firmware, it is designed or tailored specifically for its use case. You couldn’t use Wi-Fi firmware on chipsets from different companies for example.

What is embedded software?

Embedded software is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of functionality, including:

  • Operating Systems
  • Middleware
  • Applications
  • And yes! Even firmware.

It is the code that runs on a tailored piece of hardware and controls a processor and peripherals embedded within a larger device.

Embedded software gives the instructions that enable a machine to perform its designed function time and time again.

As each use case is different, embedded software is tailor-made to work around hardware constraints. Of course, you can create code that works for a range of devices in your product line, but unless the next generation uses exactly the same hardware, the software won’t work exactly the same way again.

Embedded software as a whole is often stand-alone software, running its own applications (operating systems and more) so it does not need a translation between the hardware and software. It speaks directly to the hardware.

Embedded software also opens the door for automation as not all features and functions need to be initiated via human interface, but machine interface. With the rise of smart products, manufacturers are now ‘building in’ embedded software as they go.

Embedded software examples

Any image processing device (think medical equipment), motion detection in cameras, traffic control systems, or home-appliance automation.

Your smart coffee machine remembers your favourite drink, enables you to customise your brew strength and can automatically start and stop thanks to custom-made embedded software telling the machine what it can and can’t do.

Or think of your smartwatch, reading your vital statistics through the watch sensors and hardware and feeding this data back to your smart device application.

The key difference between embedded software vs firmware

Firmware IS embedded software – but just a specific part of it.

Without the OS and middleware parts, firmware acts as a directional translator only and cannot work without other software layers working on top of it. It is just one layer, whereas a full embedded layer stack is the only software needed to make a device work.

Unlike embedded OS or application software which is updated often, firmware isn’t usually updated that often once it’s working properly.

Think of the names as a traffic light system. Soft is green, firm is orange and hard is red. Hardware is the most difficult to update on a working product line, firmware is not impossible (but still difficult), and software is easy.

 

Conclusion

Mixing the terms Firmware and Embedded Software up in conversation isn’t the end of the world. They both cover the topic of software that’s embedded into a specific piece of hardware.

The only issue you might have is if you are talking about a system you want to produce.

In which case, words matter and asking for firmware could leave you disappointed when your software team explain you still need to create and run OS and other software on top of this.

Any Embedded Software firm worth their salt however should be able to tell what you need and advise you of the best (and most effective way) to get there.

The Engineering Team - Embedded Software Engineers
27 July 2022