Saturday, May 14, 2011

The secret is to bang the rocks together

This article was originally published on the O'Reilly Radar.

Every so often a piece of technology can become a lever that lets people move the world, just a little bit. The Arduino is one of those levers.

It started off as a project to give artists access to embedded micro-processors for interaction design projects, but I think it's going to end up in a museum as one of the building blocks of the modern world. It allows rapid, cheap, prototyping for embedded systems. It turns what used to be fairly tough hardware problems into simpler software problems.

The Arduino UNO.

The Arduino, and the open hardware movement that has grown up with it, and at least to certain extent around it, is enabling a generation of high-tech tinkerers both to break the seals on proprietary technology, and prototype new ideas with fairly minimal hardware knowledge. This maker renaissance has led to an interesting growth in innovation. People aren't just having ideas, they're doing something with them.

Goodbye desktop

The underlying trend is clear. The general purpose computer is a dead end. Most people just want gadgets that work, and that do the things they want them to do. They never really wanted computers. They wanted what computers could do for them.

While general purpose computers will live on, like the horse after the arrival of the automobile, these systems will be relegated to two small niches. Those of us that build the embedded systems people are using elsewhere will still have a need for general purpose computers, as will those who can't resist tinkering. But that's the extent of it. Nobody else will need them. Quite frankly, nobody else will want them.

We'll be saying a big hello to all intelligent lifeforms everywhere and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys. - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

The humble Arduino is the start of that. The board has multiple-form factors, but a single-programming interface. Sizes range from the "standard" palm of your hand for prototyping, down to the size of your thumb for the almost-professional almost-products now starting to come out of the maker renaissance. From wearable versions like the Lilypad, sized and customised to be stitched into clothing, to specially built boards launched into space onboard the new generation of nano-satellites build on a shoe-string budget by hobbyists, to Google's new Android Open Accessory Kit.

The ANDE deployment from STS-127 in July 2009.

Every interesting hardware prototype to come along seems to boast that it is Arduino-compatible, or just plain built on top of an Arduino. It's everywhere.

Maker Faire Bay Area will be held May 21-22 in San Mateo, Calif. Event details, exhibitor profiles, and ticket information can be found at the Maker Faire site.

Things are still open. They're just different things.

There has been a great deal of fear-mongering about the demise of the general purpose computer and the emergence of a new generation of consumption devices as more-or-less closed platforms. When the iPad made its debut, Cory Doctorow argued that closed platforms send the wrong signal:

Buying an iPad for your kids isn't a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it's a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

I'm philosophical about the passing of the computer. What we're seeing here is a transition from one model of computing to another. We've seen that before and there were similar outcries for the death of the mainframe, as there has been for the death of the desktop. There is plenty of room for closed platforms, but the underlying trend is toward more openness, not less. It's just the things that are open and the things that are closed are changing. The skills needed to work with the technology are changing as well.

What the Arduino and the open hardware movement have done is made hard things easy, and impossible things merely hard. Before now, getting to the prototype stage for a hardware project was hard, at least for most people, and going beyond a crude prototype was impossible for many. Now it's the next big thing.