Sunday, March 16, 2014

Joining the Dots .......

In the Beginning..

In the early 1960s, Digital Equipment Corp, were contracted to build a system to control and monitor certain processes at a Canadian nuclear power station which would convey data back to a mainframe computer. One of the young hardware engineers, Gordon Bell, came up with the proposal, that rather than building a one-off, custom digital control system from their digital modules, that they should build a small and low cost programmable 12 bit computer. It's programmability would make it more flexible, and, as a general purpose product, could be sold to other customers. Thus the DC-12, later the PDP-5 was conceived. It was the fore-runner of the PDP-8, which was the first true minicomputer, benchtop sized and a major commercial success for DEC.

The idea of using a small computer to perform specific tasks, whilst interfaced to a larger machine was not entirely new.  Seymour Cray had developed the CDC-160 back in 1960, again a 12 bit machine, reportedly designed over a 3 day weekend!

History indeed repeats itself, as some forty years later, the Arduino team first designed their product to be an input/output board, which would interface with a desktop or laptop machine, running Processing. The easy to program Arduino could be connected to analogue and digital signals and make these available to the laptop for controlling or graphing, in a way that previously had been a lot of hard work. Either you needed to be an embedded specialist, with a register level knowledge of programming microcontrollers or use proprietary software.

It's now 10 years since the creation of the first Arduino, and this will be celebrated around the world on Arduino Day, March 29th.  Whether you love or loathe Arduino, you have to accept that it has introduced a whole generation of youngsters to open source technology, and some of them are destined to become the programmers, developers, designers and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

Arduino is just one of the ways in which technology has been opened up - a process that began about 25 years ago, with the creation of the World Wide Web, and followed by other notables including Linux, open source software, Android and open hardware, trailblazed by Arduino, and followed by many.

I recall that 25 years ago, when I started my career, that a genuine IBM PC cost the equivalent of about 5 months wages, and you could spend a similar amount on the software packages to run on it.  Now you can purchase a tablet machine for a few hundred dollars, and we have come to accept that a lot of the software is bundled into that price, or open source, free and downloadable from the web.

In my opinion, it is this democratisation of technology that has brought about the rapid developments we have seen over the last 5 years.

On a hardware front, 32 bit ARM devices are competing in price with 8 bit devices.  $5 will buy you a lot of processing power,  or $10 or $12 will buy a dev board that is Arduino compatible. The open source GCC compiler and a free, unrestricted IDE can be downloaded.  So for a few dollars, you have more computing power than that 1985 IBM PC or the 1964 PDP-5, which back then cost $27,000, at a time when a new Mustang would be $2000.

Other drivers of this technology revolution include wireless communications and improved battery technology.  Devices will become smaller, smarter and run for years on low cost batteries.  The SmartPhone can provide a common interface for controlling household technology, such as channel hopping on the TV, when you can't find the remote,  programming the central heating controller, or selecting the correct program on the washing machine.

All of these applications are on convergent trajectories, powered by open source technology which is now accessible to the hobbyist.

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