Open hardware platforms like the Arduino have turned device development into a hobbyist enterprise in recent years, but the $20 price tag of a microcontroller board seems a lot less tantalizing when one adds in the costs of testing and debugging it. At LinuxCon 2012 in San Diego, David Anders addressed this issue and offered some guidance on finding and selecting tools for open hardware development, the majority of which are open hardware themselves.
Openness and tools
“Open hardware” can mean a variety of things, from expensive commercial products with published schematics and chip designs all the way down to one-off experiments and home-brewed devices built from cheap parts like the Arduino microcontroller board. What the various definitions have in common, however, is the sharing of information, which in turn lowers the barrier to entry for participants in the community. But despite the “maker” movement’s popularity of late, the tools problem that accompanies it is rarely discussed. Reality is that the hardware to build rapid-prototyping and one-off projects may be cheap and plentiful — but the tools required to test and debug that hardware is expensive, specialized, and proprietary.
For example, bench-top oscilloscopes start at $250 and can go up well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Logic analyzers start at around $1000. Even sticking with the low end, Anders said, buying a tool that costs ten or one hundred times the price of the device you are building takes some of the shine off of the process, particularly for someone who only needs to make hardware on infrequent occasions. Furthermore, the commercial versions of tools like the oscilloscope are designed for use by people like electrical engineers, and have a difficult learning curve.