The Strange, Symbiotic Relationship between "Hobby" and "Commercial"

"What is the worst that could happen if I got your tools for free?" I asked. "I give up" said the sales rep. "I would design in your product to my product, is that so horrible that you have keep these tools from me?" --Chuck

The whole aspect of "hobby electronics" or "Do-It-Yourself" (DIY) electronics is in trouble. Worse it is treated somewhat as a bane by most electronics distributors and manufacturers.

The trouble stems from the fact that it is very difficult to build things without specialized tools these days, and those tools, while inexpensive to manufacture are encumbered by a large number of expensive licensing problems. Nowhere is this more evident than programmable logic.

Let's go back for a moment 25 years to the mid to late 70's and early 80's. This was when one of the greatest single revolutions since the industrial revolution really got started. It was the "tech" revolution, the dawn of the Silicon Age. I was in college then and one could build a computer from parts that you bought at Radio Shack. Yes, that same store that now has only a token set of components was actually stocking an acceptable number of both general purpose and specialized integrated circuits. In addition to soldering irons, wire, etc.

At that time, people working in "real" jobs worked at home and in their garages with this incredibly neat technology to build computers. These "hobbyists" and "amateurs" as they were labeled were sowing the seeds of what today is a multi-billion dollar industry. They could do this because an old used oscilloscope, some logic chips, power supply, and a soldering iron could be had for the princely sum of about $250. 

The nice thing about being a hobbyist (even if during the day in your "real job" you are a Nobel Prize winning scientist) is that there is nothing but your imagination to guide and inspire you. This means that you think "out of the box" because there is no box, just neat stuff to use to build even neater stuff. 

The ability to innovate on a budget however is today serious compromised by two primary factors:

Let's give two examples of the problem (one of the names has been changed to protect the stupid :-)

Dummy Electronics

Dummy Electronics manufacturers a chip that does a zillion wonderful things. They sell the chip to people to incorporate into their products. They also sell a bunch of tools that run on a computer that you must have to use their chips, further they won't tell you enough about how their chips work so that one could write their own tools. 

The tools cost at least $500 per year to license are themselves buggy and only run on a buggy, but widely available operating system. 

So let us ask ourselves what is going on here?  Dummy Electronics is attempting to keep people from using their parts by forcing them to use painful solutions or none at all. Recipe for disaster.

Microchip Electronics

Microchip manufacturers a series of chips (PIC Microcontrollers) that can do a zillion wonderful things. They sell the chip to people who incorporate them into interesting products. They also give away the tools that you need to program their chips.

The tools are free, but still only work on that buggy but widely available operating system. Microchip however documents and distributes all the information an engineer needs to make their own tools. Consequently a large variety of high quality and free tools have appeared that work on reliable operating systems as well as that old buggy one.

So what is going on here? Microchip is leveraging the investment they made in their core technology and encouraging its use by everyone. Consequently their chips get designed into more things than any other microcontroller in the world! They price their now high volume chips in such a way that they cover the cost of maintaining the tools they give away, and further there are more tools to choose from and they are well liked and respected by the industry. People design in their parts at their "real jobs" too and Microchip gets another design win.

What "Dummy Electronics" and others like them fail to realize is that the worst thing that can happen to them if they give away their tools is that their parts will get designed into more stuff! (clearly not the worst thing at all!) Further, by documenting their products a tremendous pool of engineering talent is motivated to improve and leverage their tools and technology that gives them even broader acceptance. 

Everyone figured this out with Data Books, give away the documentation and while some folks won't use it, others will! And from small seeds like that Apple Computer was born.  

Hobbyist? Engineer? Student? Flake?

There is a group of guys and gals who span the range from elementary school student to rocket scientist who are using various parts to build projects that are of interest to them in some way.

To a distributor/manufacturer these folks are "noise" and are tolerated like a demented second cousin.

Then there is the group of people who are designing products for production and resale and represent huge orders and the life blood of the company.

To a distributor/manufacturer these folks are "customers" and treated like honored guests.

Now don't get me wrong here, I understand why, as a business, you would focus on the people who were paying your salary, however the tricky part is realizing that there is really just one "customer" and that is a smart guy or gal who is willing to use your product to achieve their goal. This is what makes parts successful.

However, too many companies take the position that once a Corporation has chosen their parts, they should be forced to use (aka buy)  their tools. Then they make the tools group a Profit and Loss unit of the company (where the group is funded by their own profits). Thus the tools are absurdly expensive (but affordable to said Corporation because they just pass the cost on to their customers).  This freezes out the true innovators from using their parts.

Were these manufacturer to add a Use Tax of perhaps 1 cent to each part, the entire tools group could be funded by that "tax." This would enable them to  give their tools away for free. This alternate business model encourages the use of their tools which, not surprisingly, gets them designed into a lot more products!

So get a clue Dummy Electronics, provide clear and complete documentation and get some free tools out there. You've got nothing to lose and everything to gain.


Copyright (c) 2001, Chuck McManis, All Rights Reserved.