I’ve noticed an interesting trend recently. Forgive my lack of awareness if this has all been said before, but here it is: microcontroller chip manufacturers are making/supporting some very cheap development kits nowadays. Not only that, but the through-hole DIP package is making a comeback, most notably with the NXP LPC1100 Cortex-M0 MCU in a 28-pin DIP and other 'developer-friendly' forms.
It must be down to the new way of working in product development which, at least in it’s early stages, may involve Internet social networking sites and the ‘Cloud’. This change in emphasis may be coming about because the big consumer electronics companies are either going out of business, dumping their R & D and training departments so sealing their fate, or outsourcing product development to universities and SMEs. With a few well-known exceptions most university departments can’t afford to buy expensive development kit every time a new chip appears and neither can a one-man-band startup company. Some of the more powerful 16- and 32-bit MCUs of late have required the purchase of development kits costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars, pounds or Euros. Not to mention the software tools needed in non-trial form often costing a lot more than the hardware.
Let’s start with the Arduino. There have always been cheap development boards of course, but for some reason the Arduino, based on an Atmel AVR device, has spawned a rash of look-a-likes with expansion board (or ‘Shield’) compatibility. The Digilent chipKITs are shield-compatible but offer 32-bit Microchip PIC32 performance running with standard MPLAB development tools. Next up is the FEZ Domino from NXP. Also shield-compatible, this little board uses an ARM 7 core MCU and is driven by Microsoft's .NET Micro Framework. An open-source board called Netduino, this time based on an Atmel ARM 7 is also available and it too makes use of the .NET framework. Didn’t I read that .NET was being dropped by Microsoft? Presumably not, as Microsoft themselves support the open-source project Gadgeteer featuring the ARM 9 based FEZ Spider.
If you’re really short of funds, how about the Texas Instruments LaunchPad based on their 16-bit MSP430 chip? Now that’s what I call low-cost. Not powerful enough? Well, for a little more money you can have the latest ARM Cortex-M4F technology. Yes that’s right: MCU, DSP and floating point hardware in the form of the ST Microelectronics Discovery kit for their STM32F4. Plus loads of on-board goodies. The chip manufacturers are falling over themselves to provide cheap development hardware often supported by their own social networking websites. For instance TowerGeeks are hosted by Freescale to support their Tower development system. The boards for this system are rather more expensive, but they make a very nice compatible low-cost board for their Kinetis Cortex-M4 series called KwikStik. The relatively expensive (at least at this level) BeagleBoard now has a cheaper version in the BeagleBone featuring a 700MHz Cortex-A8 processor. This is described as being ‘hardware-hacker focused’ like its bigger brother.
The new ‘big-thing’ is of course, The Cloud: all your development tools, and programs run from a remote site. The ARM mbed is the best example of this, enabling you to work on software development from anywhere that has an Internet connection. Read about my first experience with mbed in this article.
So what’s it all about then? Well, the small startup company and the hobbyist are clearly the target market. Hence the low-cost, open-source approach and the clever cost-cutting bit: the use of customers themselves to provide support via forums and social networking sites. Nice, but it doesn’t entirely replace the accumulated knowledge and experience of the in-house engineer. After all, you don’t want to find your latest top-secret idea plastered all over the Internet by that newly-recruited spotty graduate, now do you?
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