Why the Arduino Matters

In January 1975, Popular Electronics ran a cover story about a new computer for hobbyists. The Altair 8800 came as a kit and cost $439 (the equivalent of $1,778.58 in today’s dollars). It came with no on-board memory. You programmed it by entering Intel 8080 opcodes by hand via a series of switches on the front panel. Buying 4k of memory, the ability to read in programs from paper tape, and a teletype interface would increase the price 6 fold. You had to solder the thing together by hand. By comparison with the big university and corporate mainframes it was basically useless.

But Popular Electronics was the Make Magazine of its day and engineering schools had begun to require their graduates to learn some programming, so Forest Mims and Ed Roberts, the two guys in Albuquerque who’d put the Altair together, figured they could probably sell a few hundred in the first year to this emerging group of hackers avant la lettre.

They took 1,000 orders in the first month. Six months after the release they’d sold 5,000. By October of that year their company had 90 employees.

Why was the Altair such a runaway success? After all, by comparison to the cutting edge computers of its day, it was underpowered and extremely difficult to work with. The answer is ownership. The Altair offered bourgeoning hackers their first chance at a computer that would be fully and completely theirs. They could take it home, throw it up on their work bench, take it apart, put it back together and try to get it to do totally new unimagined things. They could program their Altairs to play Fool on the Hill through a transistor radio. They could build a board to let the Altair drive a color TV in Times Square. They could start a small company to sell programming languages for it. They could get together with their fellow Altair owners to share programs and cool hacks.

This last point can’t be emphasized enough. The Altair crystallized growing local groups of DIY computer enthusiasts like the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley. It gave them an outlet for their energies and an example of what could be done. It made them believe that their incredible fantasy of having their own computers might really come true.

And after that, there was no stopping them. This new generation of hackers dedicated itself with an almost religious zeal to spreading the idea of computer ownership across the world. They invented the personal computer — a whole industry dedicated to the notion that computers could make life better and work easier for everyone, not just huge institutions. The Homebrew Computer club alone included the founders of Apple, Ozborne (builders of the first portable), and a raft of other industry pioneers.

Today, the world of physical computing closely resembles the personal computer industry circa 1975. We’ve been around for a few years struggling around the edges with tools and products that were designed, priced, and packaged for serious industry, but we haven’t made any money and we haven’t moved the world. That’s about to change.

Recently, our Altair arrived. It’s called the Arduino. This is 2009 so instead of being built by two engineers in Albuquerque, it was built by an open source international cabal of programmers and professors.

A lot of people complain that it’s underpowered and overpriced (even though it only costs $8.64 in 1975 dollars). But you don’t need special hardware to program it. It lets you do all the basic tasks with just a line or two of perfectly comprehensible code. And there’s a thriving community of people busily using it to do all the useless, fun, creative things they’d always dreamed of if only they could get their hands on a computer that could sense and control the world around it. They’re using it to teach houseplants to call for help if they need watering. And they’re using it to play music on glasses of water.

If the Arduino is the Altair of physical computing then what will be its VisiCalc? What will be the killer application that makes the physical computer of the future a necessity for business. If the Arduino is the Altair, what will physical computing’s Mac look like? I don’t think anyone today knows the answers to these questions.

But the answers are coming. In the next few years, physical computing has as much of a shot at changing the world as technologies ever get. And this is the time to get involved. Unlike the web, personal computer, and green energy industries, physical computing is a space where two guys in a garage can come along and invent something that will touch billions of people around the world without anyone else’s permission. That’s because what’s needed in physical computing is not advanced research, massive infrastructure investment, or huge production facilities. What’s needed is close attention to applying the existing technology to solving human-scale problems. Microcontrollers and sensors, CNC milling machines and laser cutters, GPS devices and accelerometers need to be transformed into tools that regular people can use to improve their daily lives: to make themselves more connected to the people and places around them, to entertain, educate, and distract them.

In 30 years, when people tell the story of the Physical Computing Revolution and how it changed the world, what will they say about you?

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26 Responses to Why the Arduino Matters

  1. Jeronimo says:

    Great post, I agree that we are at the same stage Wosniak,Jobs and Gates were when they started “tinkering” with microprocessors 30 years ago. Many solutions are being created everyday or only led-blinkers and servos just to amuse todlers. The visicalc is coming and I am trying to be a part of it, building something or just blogging about the revolution at http://www.blogdoje.com.br
    Regards ,

  2. Nick Taylor says:

    If anyone’s interested, I’ve collected/collated some thoughts/photos etc on where arduino is going over here : http://www.genomicon.com/tag/arduino/
    There’s a bit of a conundrum at the heart of mass-customisation – and that is, when something becomes successful enough to make money, the benefits of economics of scale kick in, and it becomes an economic imperative to stop using customiseable tools and to mass-produce.
    So. I think a killer app of the webification of hardware is going to be home energy-monitoring/automation. This is going to happen – it’s already started, and alongside the commercial offerings, there’s also an open-source offering that is allowing people to experiment. When the solution that “gels” with the buying public arrives though, it will be mass-produced rather than ardunio-ified.
    Hardware differs from software in a fundamental respect – making copies isn’t free.
    So my take? The killer app of arduinos is the ability to prototype… and the way to get that to consumers is to make a lego-like version which doesn’t require soldering/expertise etc. The killer app is lowering the bar to prototyping – rather than any single-task end-product.

  3. mort says:

    Aha. I wish I could live long enough to see it happen.

  4. JohnForDummies says:

    $8.64 in 1975 dollars? The Really Bare Bones Arduino’s that I picked up were only $9.90 in 2009 dollars. I love the ‘Duino, and enjoyed your take on it.

  5. Rich says:

    Good one. I really need to get my hands dirty.

  6. Rick says:

    Ever heard of the Gumstix? It’s just like the Arduino, only cooler.

  7. I love the gummy but Arduino is waaaaaaaaaay more accessable for most tinkerers. Because it is cheap I could car less if I burn out a duino trying something stupid like putting it on a water rocket or an rc boat. I love my Gumstix but just getting a dev env going is still too hard for anyone who doesn’t develop in a linux env on a regular basis.

  8. derf says:

    I think VisiCalc may be the wrong analogy. What Arduino needs to explode is a ‘monitor’ and a ‘keyboard’. And no, I don’t mean that literally. I mean it needs cheap homebrewed *packaging*. It needs a pretty interface with the world, and that means something like a RepRap. The union of people who can build stuff with an Arduino and the people who can make cool plastic ‘out’erfaces is not big enough to push it over the tipping point.

  9. mclaren says:

    Excellent points, but what the Arduino *really* needs to take off are dirt cheap transducers. Right now, you can buy a ‘duino and hack it cheaply. If the only thing you want to get into the ‘duino is digital data, that’s cheap, and can be done easily. But the instant you want to get any kind of physical analog data into the ‘duino…boy, then you’re screwed, ’cause it costs big big bucks.
    The most useful types of transducers are things like temperature sensors or humidity sensors or pressure sensors or accelerometers or SPST switches with a lifetime of millions of cycles. Alas, all these kinds of sensors (except switches) cost a boatload of bucks, far more than the Arduino. Even the switches from some place like JDR Microdevices will cost you 30 or 40 cents or more and in most cases you’re going to want a _lot_ of switches — 64 or 128 or 256 or something like that. A typical accelerometer costs from $142 to $315, and for 3-D motion you’ll need 3 of ’em. That’s between $400 and $950 for the accelerometers. To get the price down, you need to buy millions of units — something the typical hobbyist won’t be doing.
    So your transducers wind up costing and order of magnitude more than the Arduino. Not good. Compare with the original PC revolution: the CPU cost $400 in 1975 dollars, but the glue logic chips were much much much cheaper. So most of the cost of the original PCs involved the 6502 or the 4004 CPU. By contrast, today, the vast bulk of the cost for a useful device built around an Arduino involves things like the stepper motors you need to hook up to it, or the accelerometers, or the strain gauges.
    Here’s one of the cheaper strain gauges I could find:
    If you’re interfacing an Arduino with pressure-sensitive pads, you’ll need one of these for each pad. Figure a dozen or more pads at $30 each for the strain gauges, and once again, you’re looking at around $350 to $400 just for the transducers. Add in the cost of the Arduino and you’re talking about $500 just to get off the ground. That means that any commercial product would be much more expensive, probably upwards of $1000. There isn’t a mass market for a DIY device that costs $1000.
    Yes, you can build your own crude pressure sensors or temp sensors or accelerometers by hand, but they won’t be calibrated to a standard scale (so you’ll have to tweak your damn code by hand for each and every hand-built sensor, which is insanely time-consuming), they won’t be reliable or rugged so they’ll break down pretty fast, and most important, they won’t scale. You *cannot* build a million units of some Arduino-based device even if there are paid orders for it, if you have to handcraft all the sensors one at a time. Until that changes, the Arduino won’t be going anywhere.

  10. Jay Woods says:

    Perhaps the idea that will really expand the arduino is the shields to calibrate the crude pressure sensors or temp sensors or accelerometers rapidly. All that the shield needs to be is calibrated against a 4 mA to 20 mA current loop or a set of well known resistances.

  11. Bob says:

    mclaren apparently hasn’t checked Sparkfun lately ($9.25 for a 3-axis accelerometer – http://www.sparkfun.com/commerce/product_info.php?products_id=730) No doubt cheaper if you order direct and in bulk. No matter – if you can cobble together a workable successful prototype, you can rev the design a few times for reliability, economy and ease of manufacture, then line up your finance and distribution and put them on the market. That has nothing to do with the ease with which you can prototype. mclaren means well but I think is getting too far ahead with his naysaying.
    Great article – I didn’t know Forest Mims was behind the Altair though in retrospect it shouldn’t be surprising. The democratization of electrical engineering is refreshing, though maybe not to sealed-unit disposable proprietary device makers (Apple, how far you’ve fallen…) It’s premature to deify the Arduino; better to pick up a few, a fistful of discrete components and a used copy of Horowitz & Hill (aka “The Art of Elecronics.”)
    Make something. Build the present and let the future take care of itself.

  12. Gareth says:

    Fantastic article. I really agree and am looking forward to the amazing tech that will come from this burgeoning area of Ubiquitous Computer.
    Now to order my toys…

  13. Really good article and interesting comments. I am just getting my feet wet with the *duino environment, but from what I can see it should be rapidly taken up by industrial fab shops and anyone who needs to quickly prototype controlling and sensing machinery. The parallels to CAD software and to CNC machinery should help with adoption.
    From my own vantage point, this will explode and become VERY cheap for hobbyists/hackers when the arduino reaches the equivalent status to Microchip’s PIC for industrial circuit designers. This should be hastened by the emergence of new young designers, by the open source design and by the ability to “Eagle up” your own *duino board and compatible devices and shields, etc.
    Can’t wait for the revolution to come 🙂

  14. Mike Mc says:

    McLaren is clearly 10 years behind the times. 3D accelerometers are dirt cheap nowadays. Less than $10. Temp sensors can be bought for less than a $ too.

  15. IndustrialDuino says:

    You sound like you know what your talking about so you’d probably have a great deal of fun with an Arduino and you might be in for a “nice surprise” once you get familiar with its capabilities and incredibly low cost.
    For about 70 bucks, you can have an Arduino powered by a small battery that “tweets” (see twitter) from the middle of your lounge room wirelessly via your WiFi AP.
    Or the same package can take commands instantly over the internet from anywhere in the world turning devices on and off, or, with a few small add-on’s, it’s a complete wireless home security system capable of sending you SMS alerts (via TM4B) if there’s a break in, and/or updating a website monitoring your home security status that you can access from your iphone.
    Arduino is “just” getting started, the future is bright, and best of all … it, and a wide range of “transducers”, will not break your bank account = )

  16. nicolas says:

    what do you guys think of ardupilot ?
    you draw a trajectory on google map, and your model follows it.
    it is a new cool thing that exists tanks to arduino.
    i guess it’s not for everyone, but can’t there be sthg along the lines of it ?

  17. Djun Kim says:

    The name of the company you refer to in your post was Osborne (not Ozborne) I owned one, back in 1983… I agree that the Arduino, just like the Altair, is hacker crack. Can’t wait to get my hands on one, or two, or a dozen.

  18. Jeroen says:

    Great post on physical computing. DIY environmental computing will be the next big thing of this century. Ubiquitous computing is already happening. It won’t take long until the internet of things is there. If we also manage to make an easy (and cheap) way to harvest our own personal energy, like solar power, I can see true independency ahead of us.
    Wonder why no one mentions Wiring ( http://www.wiring.org.co ). It is kinda similar to the Arduino platform but has a more powerful chip.

  19. mawopi says:

    The best part is that forest Mim’s books are still the standard for introductions into electricity and analog circuits. Arduino classes and tutorials are best servd with his books alongside, bringing a nice cultural continuity to the whole affair.
    also @Jeroen, Wiring is the predecessor to Arduino, and was effectively replaced in terms of capacity and role by the Mega Arduino this past year.

  20. … and check out Bug Labs (www.buglabs.net), also doing cool things in this space (disclosure: my firm is an investor).

  21. Greg says:

    Hey Randy —
    I was super excited about Bug when it was first announced and was inboard for nearly the full weight for an early unit. Unfortunately i’v been less inspired to hack with my Bug in the time I’ve actually had it. Without a ton of modules it’s hard to actually use it for anything. I did recently pickup the Von Hippel though so I can theoretically use it in concert with my Arduino. Maybe that will inspire me to play with it more. I was specifically interested in seeing if I could get Ruby working on there either through a C extension or jruby integration. Do you know if anyone has succeeded on eiher of those?

  22. Rory says:

    I can’t believe nobody’s figured this out yet.
    This thing’s “VisiCalc” is obvious. It has two (2):
    1. A BJ machine. And I think you know what I mean by “BJ” (like, I’m NOT talking about “Billowy Junipers” or “Beef Juggling” or other common “BJ”s).
    2. An apparatus for partial-amputee IV drug users. This is a market that, as far as I know, is completely untapped.
    This is your world, Greg.
    Change it.
    (Also, you could make something that automatically pokes – I didn’t include this as a VisiCalc because I haven’t quite figured out yet what it would be *for* – I just feel like I’m on to something – but something that’s more like the Solitaire of this world rather than the VisiCalc (maybe even the Minesweeper – who knows).)

  23. Hey nice. I always prefer to know about latest tech info. Thanks for update

  24. Scalesmart says:

    I’m very interested in linking an arduino board to a load cell (strain gauge) to produce a low cost weighing system that can connect to a PC. At the moment we would be looking at a cost of around £160.00 and a connection via RS232.
    A USB basic scale seems like a cracking idea! I havea customer who would probably want to mass produce this.

  25. Greg says:

    You should take a look at the Teensy++. It’s an arduino variant that let’s you build projects that mount as USB devices.

  26. klingon says:

    raspberry pi…… anyone?

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