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Chip vendors attempt to mine DIY community with $99 boards

Posted: 21 Apr 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:DIY? board? reference design?

The DIY movement is quickly gaining popularity, and more chip suppliers are providing reference designs for 'makers' at under $100. As board prices and the Internet have transformed DIY into a broader maker movement, EE Times Chief International Correspondent Junko Yoshida questions this emerging trend: "Will makers help chip guys' bottom line?"

Am I the only one scratching my head over this newborn love among "makers," board vendors, and chip companies? What mystifies me most is not so much the love part, but how anyone could eventually mistake this infatuation for good business.

OK, there are a few random facts I've picked up in the past few months. First, chip suppliers today are going out of their way to help out non-engineering professionals in pursuit of DYI projects, or those who say they are.

To cater to this crowd, it isn't enough just to give them traditional reference design. Freescale Semiconductor, for one, hopes to mine the crowd, despite an absence of hardware design expertise. It possesses some specific domain knowledge that might project it as the source of the next hot wearable device.

Freescale earlier this year launched new reference design called WaRP. Freescale is adding to its platform a broad range of wearable building blocks (sensors, software, connectivity, etc.) from which makers can pick and choose what they need to scale up or scale down the device.

Marvell recently announced Kinoma Create. In pursuit of Web designers, software developers, and non-engineering professionals with no prior experience in designing a system, Marvell designed Kinoma Create, a JavaScript-powered maker kit for prototyping consumer electronics and IoT devices. Peter Hoddie, Marvell's Kinoma vice president, described the kit as "much more complete than what a single-board computer can offer."

It comes with "a case to make it portable, a battery to make it mobile, adjustable legs to reorient it, and an integrated breadboard for adding sensors!no soldering iron needed," he said. But the beauty part (they say) is that users can integrate all the necessary elements with the higher-level JavaScript software.

Allwinner in China seemed delighted when pcDuino picked Allwinner's apps processor as the brain for its motherboard. All the hard work needed to make a variety of Arduino hardware!developed by the open-source hardware community!pluggable to pcDuino has been carried out by the pcDuino community, not Allwinner. pcDuino, with no help from Allwinner, is enabling makers to design everything from a new smoke detector (which sends a message to your smartphone to change batteries, instead of making annoying beeping sounds in the middle of the night) to virtual desktops.

Below $100

Next: Companies are putting out reference design-turned single computer boards at a price point around $100. At a time when you can get a Raspberry Pi, a credit card-sized board with a Broadcom SoC running Linux at only $35, even $100 seems pretty expensive to some makers.

A start-up, Adapteva, last year launched a parallel-processing board called Parallella using a Kickstarter campaign. The company recently started building 1,400 boards a week and began "shipping mass quantities to Kickstarter backers, many of whom have waited almost 18 months." The Parallella board is priced... well you guessed it... at $99.

Similarly, Marvell last month launched Kinoma Create at Indiegogo, another crowd-funding site. Now the Kinoma Create, scheduled to start shipping in September, is priced at $149.

As Andreas Olofsson, Adapteva's CEO, told us, "Apparently, nobody any longer buys a $1,500 reference design from a chip company." As discouraging as all this sounds, the new "maker" movement opens opportunities for chip vendors to move devices and reference designs into the hands of people they've never sold chips to before. "If it is under $100, even a professional engineer could use his personal credit card to try out a new chip in his spare time over the weekend," he explained. That's not bad for Adapteva, which is hoping to sway engineers to try out the company's low-power multi-core microprocessor design.

By selling Parallella to the general public on their website, Oloffson said, "We now know who bought our boards." The company is trying to build a community whose members can help one another.

There is one problem. So far, few "members" have written in to the so-called community. "We have little idea how those buyers!who haven't asked us questions!are doing with our board. For that matter, we don't even know if they actually opened the box we shipped."

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