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*duino meets chipmakers: What's all this then?

-December 10, 2013

If you've been living in a cave, under the sea, or on Mars for several years, you could be forgiven for not knowing about the Arduino phenomenon. What started simply as a way to make embedded controllers available to non-specialists like artists, hobbyists, "makers", students, and so on, has blossomed into a massive hardware & software ecosystem. For an overview from one of the Arduino's creators, watch this TED talk:



But I'm not here to talk about the wonders of Arduino. I want to look at the recent interest that chipmakers like Intel are showing in the Arduinoverse. What's going on?

One of Arduino's distinguishing features is its processor. The original Arduino used (and still uses) the Atmel AVR Mega microcontroller. It's a nice little chip family, but not exactly a powerhouse, being 8-bits and running around 10 native MIPS. Another key component is Arduino's integrated development environment (IDE) – based on C, but relying on a massive set of libraries that make various µC features and add-on boards easy to use. Obviously, all this HW & SW is heavily interdependent. What if one element, say the µC, is changed? Is it still an Arduino?

Apparently it is.

Various companies now make boards
that are compatible with Arduino expansion boards (called, ugh, "shields"), and which use a modified Arduino IDE, but they use processors like the PIC32 and ARM Cortex-M to boost processing muscle. That's pretty interesting.

Even more interesting is that some of these boards are being promulgated by IC makers themselves. Freescale has its Kinetis Freedom board (Cortex-M0+), and Intel (yes, Intel) has announced its Galileo board, based on a new, low-end (400MHz) x86 µC called Quark.

What does it all mean? I'm not sure. What do you think it means? Why are companies like Microchip, Freescale, and Intel interested in Arduino?

After all, the main Arduino demographic so far has been the aforementioned non-engineering crowd. Having straddled hobbyist and professional worlds for decades, I've always been put off by how poorly the big companies have treated the hobby crowd and small developers (you'd think they'd remember how many large companies started small in a garage). Are they suddenly changing their tune?

Or are they hoping to turn the Arduino into a professional product? I expect it's already found itself designed into some production devices, though most likely small quantity items made by companies not specializing in electronics, or by design-for-hire firms creating specialized hardware and wanting to cut their development cost & time.

Or is it just that Arduino is the cool thing, and the chipmakers want to be sure to have a finger in the pie – for some geek cred, or in case Arduino takes off professionally.

I'd love to hear your opinions, especially if you've used a *duino professionally (I propose *duino (Starduino) for non-AVR-based Arduino-compatible boards).


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