The state of the Arduino ecosystem

*** The following is a “bitter old engineer” rant.  You’ve been warned.

At this ripe old age, I have come to value most the quality of a toolchain. I’ll go a step further and say that the coherency and consistency of the umbrella that toolchain inhabits is a most prized quality.  And what spurred this revelation?  Why the obtuse declaration?

I have seen the other side, brothers and sisters. I have felt the greener grass on the knoll of Arduino, and I’m here to tell you something: it ain’t that green.

My (albeit, limited) experience to date in hacker-friendly Arduino land has been lackluster. It reminds me of another favorite rant of mine: Linux. There are some striking similarities between the two communities of DIY hobbyists and computer enthusiasts.

The Arduino Uno, marvel of electronics enthusiasts.
The Arduino Uno, marvel of electronics enthusiasts.
  1. As soon as something “official” releases, there are half a dozen “forks” that have splintered off. This serves to dilute the overall user experience, causing bewilderment and disorganization.
  2. As a result, newer users aren’t sure where to start to get things up and running.
  3. Knowing where to turn for help is equally difficult. Because the dragon has a dozen heads, you might have to slay them all before you master the thing.

I have on my work bench a handful of Arduino-esque stuff, virtually all of it non-operational hardware (so far):
a) A Pololu AVR programmer
b) A Sparkfun Pocket AVR Programmer
c) A homemade ISP programmer
d) An Arduino UNO
e) A relay development board with ATtiny2313 MCU

a)

This was a replacement for (b), promising to be more better faster. At least this manufacturer’s drivers are self-hosted, i.e., they make their own suite of drivers. It’s not some arcane foreign package, managed by yet another third party, long defunct. And yet… damned if the thing won’t work. I get the dreaded Exclamation Point of Death.

b)

This is a hopeless mess. Sparkfun’s driver link just goes nowhere. After a half an hour of reading and clicking, I stumble over to another vendor’s site and find some hearsay about yet another suite of drivers that allegedly work. Finally this installs, but there’s no COMM port listed in Device Manager. So, none of the software tools can recognized the thing.

c)

I was foolhardy to think I could make my own programmer from scant directions on the interwebz.  That was just a big fail.

d)

My first Arduino dev board, the Uno, does not work. I plug it in, and most of the time no machine will recognize it. No “bonk”, no “ding”, nothing. I took this to my office and gave it to my technicians who are well accustomed to working with QC and microscopes and fancy solder reflow equipment. They found nothing distinctly wrong with it. And yet it clearly doesn’t work.

I found that if I bend the Uno board a bit (yes, bend), I can get Windows Device Manager to wiggle a bit. So there appears to be an inner layer fault, most likely a trace intermittence. Lovely. Another brick for my pile.

e)

To program the AVR chip, I turned to these sprinkling of software tools that purport to do so:

  • WinAVR
  • AVRDude
  • AVRDude-GUI
  • AVR Studio

The top three have been dudes for me so far.  I’m yet to try the gold standard, AVR Studio.  After all, this is published by the manufacturer of the MCU…

The only piece of hardware above that I got to work was the relay I/O board. And you know how I did it? With a Freescale HCS08 dev board. Not an AVR chip or an Arduino board. The S family of chips is simply lovely. It’s soothing. It’s a fresher breath of air, having inhaled the stale aroma from the Arduino “hackerspace”.

But to be fair, Freescale is my comfort zone.  I cut my teeth on the Motorola HC11.  So it stands to reason that I’d favor that flavor.

The uniformity of experience in going from a line of C code to a hex file burned onto silicon is now even more valuable to me. The Freescale “way of doing things” is a much more pleasant thing. One application (CodeWarrior) weighing in at a hefty half gig, published by a single vendor that also happens to design and fab the chip you’re using, is all you need. Start to finish. That’s power.


I should note right here and now that I’m actually the biggest supporter of the Open Hardware Movement and the philosophies that Arduino espouses.  There have been countless amazing creations achieved with this platform.

It’s in the implementation that I’m disappointed.  Frankly, I’m surprised that the masses aren’t as frustrated as I am.  I suspect that this is indicative of a greater public movement: that of DIY culture invading every corner of the marketplace.  The software (or tool, or apparatus) doesn’t work as advertised?  No sweat, just hack it!

And that ethos truly is something to celebrate.  Kudos to the Everyman who fixes something rather than disposes of it, complains, and buys a new one.

But coming from the engineering and product development side of the aisle, I’m forced to side with the philosophies of coherent and esthetically pleasing user experience.  This has value too, just as much (I would argue) as the value of DIY, crowd-sourced electronic hobbyism.

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