Today, product ranges are achieved with dynamic software licensing rather than multiple hardware variants.
At the inception of any new product range, designers face the same pressures they always have: critically, the conundrum of how to balance those price vs functionality variables most optimally for their target market. Rarely are designers even lucky enough to find themselves faced with a single optimum balance either, forced to provide both budget and premium variants and often many more mid-points in between both extremes, to capture the widest possible audience.
Historically, it was the host hardware that bore the brunt and inconvenience of this need for scalability from basic to premium models, with differing tactics employed to achieve this most cost-effectively. Some opted to manufacture entirely discrete PCBs, with the advantage of maximum functional flexibility but not benefiting at all from scale of manufacture. Others opted to utilize the same core PCB, but achieving variation through depopulating core functional components, this reduced PCB costs but increased assembly costs due to multiple placement machine set ups. Multiple PCBs were also implemented to achieve the diverse variants requirement modularly, which can be a particularly costly approach when including less popular functionality.
With the rapid decrease in cost of key functional components across the industry, especially with key features increasingly embedded within a system-on-chip (SoC) or bundled within multiple purpose ICs – the core cost of implementing that feature in hardware has become insignificant. Today designers increasingly find themselves within a scenario where any of the historic approaches at “designing out” features previously reserved for more premium variants becomes more expensive than leaving them in. Whilst this may first appear to be a scalability headache, actually it opens the door to satisfying that need in a different way – through software.