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One of the basic functions of the rst PC operating system, MS-DOS, was to load and start executing applications from some source (typically a diskette, but in the rst PCs from audiotape). This function probably seems obvious and quite simple, but there are quite a few steps involved in loading the code into executable memory at an address that can be referenced, making sure that it is linked into the operating system APIs, allocating variable memory, and starting code execution. The complexity of these steps depended on what kind of application was being run on the PC and the system requirements of the code. The loading and execution of an application are a function that has been available to many different microcontroller architectures for years but is something that has become available only recently to PIC microcontrollers. The ability to load an application from some source, save it in memory, and then execute the code requires microcontroller program memory that can be changed by an executing program. PIC17 microcontrollers with external memory had this capability, but the systems designed around them were quite complex what was needed was a PIC microcontroller bootloader application that had the ability to update its own internal Flash program memory to become available so that this function could be implemented in applications, eliminating the need for an ICD connector or pulling out the PIC microcontroller to update the application code. To summarize the important feature of a bootloader; it is a program that will allow a new application to be installed without requiring any special hardware. Bootloaders may seem to be an unnecessary requirement because of the availability of MPLAB ICD, which performs many of the same capabilities as this type of tool, but they are still useful because there are situations where MPLAB ICD is not practical to use or is unavailable. If you had a problem with a robot and were at a competition, it probably would be much easier for you to connect a USB or serial cable between the robot and a laptop to download a new application (in the case where the competition calls for you to come up with a custom application for your robot). Other cases where a bootloader is preferable over MPLAB ICD is if the application is being used by someone who isn t
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familiar with MPLAB ICD, or it is used in a hostile environment where there is danger of damage to the product or MPLAB ICD, and a simple, rugged host computer is the best choice for updating the application. Personally, a couple of years ago I would have dismissed the usefulness of bootloaders in applications, but I have seen a number of cases where they are extremely useful and more effective than other methods of updating an application.
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Bootloaders have a basic set of requirements that are needed to perform their functions. When reviewing these requirements, remember that they are high level and not meant to direct you in a speci c direction; a good example of this is PIC18C801 chips that have a bootloader function built into the chip that allows an external parallel Flash chip to be programmed via USB with no other code running. I m noting this because in many of the smaller pin-out devices, you may see some advantages to implementing a bootloader, but the traditional resources that are available in chips such as the PIC16F877A (for which I demonstrate a bootloader later in this chapter) are not available, which may seem to eliminate a bootloader from being considered for the application. When working with the PIC microcontroller, many times when you are considering implementing a bootloader, you will discover that there are common requirements between the bootloader and providing the interface hooks for using MPLAB ICD. The six basic requirements of a bootloader are The application can communicate with the host system. The host system has a mechanism for sending data to the PIC. The PIC microcontroller must be able to write to its own memory. The application code can execute without modi cation (except for reduced size for bootloader code). 5 If an application is loaded, the system should boot it automatically. 6 On startup, the system can be commanded to go into boot mode to allow the downloading of a new application.
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Some of these requirements probably will seem obvious such as the need for the application (both hardware and software) to be able to communicate with the host system. Despite being obvious, this capability is not something that will come automatically; along with making sure that input-output (I/O) pins are available for the bootloader, you must make sure that the schematic and the printed circuit board (PCB) have provisions for connectors and interface chips such as RS-232 translators and the software that supports this interface. For Logitech Harmony remote controls, bootloader functionality is implemented three ways: through MPLAB ICD, through the remote s USB connection, and using the NRZ UART interface built into the PIC18. Each of these interfaces is used in different aspects of development, manufacturing, and remote setup.
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