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Firmware Over-the-Air (FOTA) is used for upgrades to mobile phones and tablet computers. The feature goes by several names including Software Update, Firmware Update or Device Management. Originally, firmware updates to a device required visiting a specific service center, with every mobile brand having their own service center. Another method of receiving updates has been by connecting the device via a cable to a PC. Both of these methods were considered inconvenient by consumers and also relied on consumers actively seeking out updates. Therefore the majority of mobile device manufacturers and operators have now adopted FOTA technology for their handsets. If the mobile device has FOTA capability, firmware updates are issued directly "over the air" from the mobile phone service provider to the device. FOTA also allows manufacturers and operators to "push out" firmware upgrades to ensure that mobile consumers have the latest software improvements, which reduces potential customer support costs and increases consumer satisfaction.
Most major mobile phone manufacturers provide information about over the air software-updates on their websites, typically in their customer support section. Manufacturers will usually list which handset models support over-the-air software updating (via FOTA) or which ones still require use of a cable-PC connection.
Red Bend Software also provides a list of hundreds of mobile phone models that have FOTA software.
ARCchart, a UK-based analyst firm, estimates that globally, at least 230 handset models have been released between 2003 and October 2006 that include FOTA support. By 2008, the firm forecasts that 50% of all handsets shipping will be FOTA-enabled. Of that figure, most mid-range and high-end handsets shipping will be FOTA-capable, in addition to a few low-end devices.
In its report, ARCchart reports that a number of vendors offer firmware update capable server and client technology. These can be categorized into three tiers:
- FOTA update technology suppliers: HP, InnoPath, Insignia (acquired by Smith Micro) and Red Bend Software. All of these vendors provide client-server FOTA delivery and update technology.
- Firmware delivery server vendors: HP, InnoPath and Mformation which offer FOTA delivery (and in some cases firmware lifecycle management) as part of a much broader MDM application suite.
- MDM server vendors and integrators: Gemalto, HP and WDSGlobal who integrate or repackage firmware management server products from other vendors.
The major competitors in the FOTA client market are:
There are three fundamentally different technological approaches to generating delta files and applying these files to the firmware image: patching, padding, and computation.
Patching involves inserting a jump instruction in the beginning of the block to be replaced, which points to the replacement block. The replacement block is appended to the image in a free expansion area. The drawback is that the updated image is not bit-for-bit identical to the original target version and requires excessive amounts of memory in real-world firmware deployments.
Padding involves adding excess memory or ‘pads’ around firmware blocks that may be replaced. The challenge here is that it requires additional 10-20% of memory and introduces planning overheads in the manufacturer development process. In addition, memory blocks which are not padded cannot often be updated, which makes the approach impractical for non-sequential updates.
Computation processes the output from the software compiler and linker to generate optimized update instructions. This approach does not interfere with the development process, yet produces a bit-for-bit exact images. The computational approach allows for predictable firmware update sizes, supports non-consecutive version upgrades and unlimited updates per device.
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