In the 80′s and 90′s, trying to get a hold of some hardware to develop an idea required a large budget or a friendly sales rep that knew you would sell large quantities of the product. Hobbyists back then were usually unable to afford much in hardware. Remember that many startups were (and still are) software centric. With a computer in every household capable of developing any programming, the threshold was much lower.
Today in 2014 the industry has been going through a radical change. We can point out to a large number of hobbyists that are able to develop interesting projects with projects by using Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and similar low cost board. These boards all cost less than $50 and allow you to develop using free and open source tools. This a far cry from the days when a company had to spend thousands on tools and compilers.
We term this phenomenon the democratization of embedded development. From small microcontrollers to more advanced Linux capable processors, a hobbyist is surrounded by multiple eco system. Now every kid in the world can begin building an idea and use hardware. In a way, this hardware has done what the personal computers did in the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s.
Companies have also been taking an interesting approach by offering tools at a very low price and often below cost. The leader that started this is perhaps Texas Instruments that began offering its EZ430 boards with the MSP430F2013 for $20 in a convenient USB-stick. Today Texas Instruments offers various launchpads that cover a large number of devices such as MSP430, FRAM based MSP430, and the Cortex-M based TIVA devices. The original MSP430 launchpad board was sold for a promotional price of $4.30. You can start developing at the same price of a latte from Starbucks.
In a way this was to be expected. After all, technology has advanced to a point where costs of manufacturing continually go down. There is tremendous competition between vendors who have realized that mind share and perception of their chipsets is important. Raising a generation of engineers and tinkerers who are familiar with their devices.
But, in order to lower the bar, the new tools that are used by hobbyists are not always what is required for professional development. Hobbyists sometimes have a hard time understanding the low level behavior that is hidden from them when the underlying operations are simplified.
Consider the case of the Raspberry Pi. A wonderful platform that allows you to develop using a Linux-capable SoC. Unfortunately, creating a real product is difficult. The first issue is that the SoC used in the board is mostly closed source under NDA from Broadcom. On the hardware front, developing using such an SoC is difficult. Whereas some are comfortable with DIP packages and some Surface Mount devices, designing a board using the BGA package of the SoC is more challenging. The external high speed memory requires careful design to ensure length matching of all traces and proper operation.
It’s good to see others enjoying embedded systems as much as we do.