The Micro:Bit Gets A Foundation

It has been announced that the BBC are to pass their micro:bit educational microcontroller board on to a non-profit-making foundation which will aim to take the project to a global audience. The little ARM-based board with its range of simple on-board peripherals and easy-to-use IDEs was given to every British 13-year-old earlier this year with the aim of introducing them to coding at an early age and recapturing some of the boost that 8-bit BASIC-programmable computers gave the youngsters of the 1980s.

Among the plans for the platform are its localization into European languages, as well as a hardware upgrade and an expansion into the USA and China. Most excitingly from our perspective, the platform will henceforth be open-source, offering the chance of micro:bits finding their way into other projects. To that end thay have placed a reference design in a GitHub repository.

We’ve covered the micro:bit story from the start here at Hackaday, from its launch to the point at which it shipped several months late after a few deadlines had slipped. We reviewed it back in June, and found it a capable enough platform for the job it was designed to do.

This is an interesting step for the little ARM board, and one that should take it from being a slightly odd niche product in one small country to the global mainstream. We can’t help however thinking that price is it’s Achilies’ heel. When it costs somewhere close to £13 in the UK, it starts to look expensive when compared to the far more capable Raspberry Pi Zero at £5 or a Chinese Arduino clone at about £2.50. Here’s hoping that economies of scale will bring it to a lower price point.

32 thoughts on “The Micro:Bit Gets A Foundation

  1. What did Voja’s badge cost?
    I like the display on his badge. Being able to accept CC and CA LEDs is a very nice design feature. Frankly, there were a lot of nice design features on that badge.

    1. Yeah, Voja has incredible skill. His eye for design is spectacular and he seems to be able to meet his design goals with epic engineering skill. You’ve seen his In memory of Dali clock, right? Incredible.

      Our goal for the SuperConference badge was a material and assembly cost of $20. I don’t know how close we got to that number.

    1. Thanks! If anyone knows how to get Altium schematics to import properly into Eagle, please help. At the moment, nets come in, parts don’t and there’s a whole lot of error boxes. This absolutely isn’t because we’re dodging open source, it’s because I can’t get it to work right. I’d rather not re-do the design from scratch in Eagle – that leads to errors and a lack of sleep. Likewise, if there’s an import path for gEDA, bring it on.
      If you need libraries, schematics or whatever, exported in ancient versions or formats, shout. We want this open!

      (Also, suggestions for fun things for the user-space? I’ve got a few designs lined up, but the point is that other people can do their own thing… At the moment, you can just no-fit the battery and the audio stuff, and there’s space for a breadboard, but that’s not enough)

      1. Hiya Steve,

        As long as you’re here, kudos on releasing the designs! I had just written an article calling y’all out on that as you were committing into the GitHub. Too funny.

        And very good call on using a module in the proto version. (I imagine it’s one you used in-house before a manufacturing redesign?) It actually looks buildable by the slightly-above-average Joe/Jane. Really great stuff!

        In short, woot!

        1. Oddly not – I wasn’t involved in Micro:bit, but I’d done a few designs with the bare Nordic chip. Not least for these guys
          https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1397692060/toys-20-interactive-programmable-smart-cannybots
          (pics of the brain are about 2/3 down, but links are festering as it’s all shut down now)
          I’ve just used the same Raytac module in another (non-open) project, and it’s pretty good.
          As you say, this version should be hand buildable, although the compass and accelerometer are on 0.4mm pin pitch, and the programming micro is on 0.5mm, so care is needed. The compass and accelerometer could simply be left off, but the programmer micros should stay. It comes in a choice of QFN and QFP, both 0.5mm pitch, I think the QFN is least-worst. The first build went together fine, and more boards are landing this weekend, so I’ll be building some more to play with. The PCB is on moderate design rules – 2 layer, 6 thou track and gap. Not etchable at home, except for the seriously well equipped, but assembly, especially with a solder stencil and toaster oven should be OK for the moderately experienced. And, if it’s not, then you’ve got the source, hack away!

  2. As the competition from Calliope-mini force them in that move?

    I predict a greater success to Calliope-mini: better board design, addition of RGB LED, speaker, microphone, connectors for I2C, driver for motor control. Should be available for public purchase 2017Q1. Let see the price then.

        1. Well they’ve got maybe the first week or two of Jan, then they’ll have to be all “Fuggit then, April.”…. only if they didn’t see that coming they’ll be all “Any day now, as soon as we get hold of our Chinese agent and find out what’s going on” for 4 weeks straight.

  3. This British “not for profit” thing is starting to look like a tax dodge and a way to push small businesses out of the market. Someone in the state’s is bound to file anti-dumping charges eventually.

      1. Yes we do. But they don’t compete much with businesses that manufacture products in a competitive market. In fact, what is the business model for them in the UK? They have to make enough to pay the rent and facilities and salaries and benefit plus the phones and leased BMW’s and Landrovers and retirement funds for the founders and executives. This isn’t any different from the vast majority of businesses in the US (except very few can afford the leasing thing and the perks). Most businesses break even or manage a little growth. These are mostly proprietorships, LLC’s, C-corps and S-Corps and their bank balances go from negative to positive and back again monthly or weekly.

        What is the gain from not-for-profit? Tax breaks? Incentive grants? Special programs to “market” to huge customers like national school initiatives? Then, what happens when they make 10 million units and sell them to commercial users world wide? On what grounds do they keep their non-profit status? At this point they are a government agency competing in the open market and subsidized in some way by the people of the UK. Or so it looks from here.

        1. Whats to gain, it is called social enterprise. Where people want to do something for the benefit of society instead of make a profit. Some argue that low cost access to technology in schools will result in a future where we have more innovation.

        2. As someone with several decades UK industry experience as well as some experience of the UK charity sector I know just how tightly regulated the whole thing is to prevent abuses of non-profit status. Many people have tried all sorts of scams relating to charitable and non-profit status over the years, and it has not gone well for them.

          An organisation like the micro:bit or Pi Foundations has to have a specific charitable aim specified in its founding documents. I’m sure that exact wording for the Foundation is online somewhere in legalese, but I’m guessing it’s something you could paraphrase as “We’ll spend all the cash educating children in computer science using our boards”. They are bound to this very tightly, aside from reasonable operating expenses (and yes, they have to justify “reasonable”) they *have* to spend their cash on that aim. So for example if they decide to ilicitly channel some of it into private Swiss bank accounts the regulators and auditors will prosecute them and the bosses will go to jail. It’s happened, see links below.

          So yes, the micro:bit and Pi are produced by non-profit organisations that behave like companies from the board customer’s perspective. But they sure as hell aren’t allowed to behave as companies from the accounting perspective. I think this model is a good one for products like these, because I don’t think they could be produced to gain such traction in a conventional model. And to anyone who says they stifle innovation by stopping other companies producing similar boards, I would point to the huge ecosystems they are creating. A *lot* of small companies owe their existence to the Pi, and will no doubt also to the micro:bit.

          Gory details of dodgy charity bosses getting nicked:
          http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/charity-boss-who-stole-11000-8397301
          http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/10858267/Oxfam-anti-fraud-boss-jailed-for-stealing-65000-from-the-charity.html
          http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/childrens-cancer-charity-boss-featured-6641517

          1. It is none of my business how they spend their money. I just don’t see that there is any advantage of a non-profit over a normal business unless the government is giving them an advantage. Profits come after expenses, so there is no operating difference when compared to most businesses, which have little to no profits after salaries and and other expenses. So what is the advantage? What do they get in return for being a non-profit?

            As for businesses affected, do you really think that selling 10 million boards has not driven many small companies out of business? That is an insanely huge number in the embedded Linux field (outside of WiFi servers and cable boxes). And it has spawned the gusher of Chinese “compatible” boards and the race to the bottom in pricing by companies with eccentric business plans (or none at all – just following along). Embedded Linux based businesses have had to move into more specialized arenas where they can still charge enough for hardware to afford the high cost of supporting embedded Linux systems. More fallout will come because those niches do not provide enough business for everyone displaced by the Pi Foundation.

          2. “As for businesses affected, do you really think that selling 10 million boards has not driven many small companies out of business?”

            Absolutely not. This is my business, it’s the industry I work in, in the country I live in. I think I’d know if that were the case. I’ll repeat: it has stimulated the growth of hundreds of small businesses that would not have otherwise existed. That is a win, in my opinion.

    1. I would disagree with that statement wholeheartedly, as someone with a small British business whose products owe a lot to one such organisation.

      There is almost no way that a conventional small electronics business in the UK could produce a board with that much traction. Sure any number of such businesses could design a micro:bit and do some software for it But they would be unlikely to succeed in doing so with anything like the market penetration of the micro:bit or the Pi without the special status and the backing of a large organisation. In this case the BBC, in the Pi’s case Broadcom, RS, and Farnell.

      Meanwhile the Pi has far from pushing small businesses out of the market, it has definitely kickstarted an ecosystem of small electronics businesses. It’s *created* a market, and a thriving one. I’m sure the micro:bit will have a similar effect. And that is without yet considering how the Pi foundation have spent their cash in fulfilling their educational remit.

      We are not without our damaging corporate tax dodgers in the UK. This however is not one of them.

      1. >Meanwhile the Pi has far from pushing small businesses out of the market
        It pretty much killed my previous baby, Balloonboard, and I was miffed until Pi Foundation started to actually deliver on the educational promises – now I’m reasonably happy*. We were never going to match Pi on price, no way, no how (but we did have some spiffy FPGA / CPLD options, and were probably too early, Balloon2 was done in 2003).
        The traction that came from being so low priced, and so press-savvy, was deserved, imho.

        * I wish Pi was more open, so I could strap an FPGA to the side of it in a useful manner, or add more useful (to me) camera support, or, or, or… But their ball, their rules.

      2. “Meanwhile the Pi has far from pushing small businesses out of the market, it has definitely kickstarted an ecosystem of small electronics businesses.”

        Pure fantasy. You can not sell 10 million embedded Linux boards without displacing other businesses. Don’t be silly.

        1. Just what do you imagine in that those 10m boards do once they have been sold? Sit on pedestals, never to be used, never to have anything plugged into them? Of course not. They are used, expanded, extended. People buy stuff to plug into them, and companies have sprung up to provide that stuff and more. It is pure fantasy to suggest otherwise when the evidence is there in the form of multiple suppliers providing a thriving ecosystem.

          1. There were people providing boards into those markets and competed without the favor of government. Do you think the embedded Linux business did not exist before the Pi?

            Maybe you should draw some diagrams about what happens to a thriving competitive marketplace when someone comes in at 1/3 the price of everyone else. If it were not for Pi’s absolutely sucking at driving LCD’s I would be bankrupt. The business model is akin to dumping. I still get imports to the States from China and Japan blocked to check for certain kinds of RAM or NAND that some court ruling says are too low cost to be anything but anti-competitive dumping. The foundation makes their money by dumping world wide. There MUST be an advantage in being a non-profit in the UK. Otherwise the Pi people would have gone under a long time ago. You can’t sell those things at those prices in a real business. (Maybe they can now, due to the promise to manufacturers of volumes in the hundreds of thousands to millions, something none of the businesses serving these markets could guarantee.)

  4. “in one small country”

    Maybe small but we punch well above our weight. :)

    I like them all, flood the market with cool devices and one day, maybe before I die, everyone will be coding / making and we can finally get rid of the ‘dumbing down’ meme from the 90’s / 2000’s that has been too successful.

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