Adafruit Interviews The CEO Of FTDI

When it comes to electronic hobbyists and EEs, there is no company that deserves a few raised eyebrows than FTDI. They made their name with USB converter chips, namely USB to serial chips that are still very popular today. So popular, in fact, that clones of these chips are frequently found in the $2 Arduinos from China, and other very low-cost devices. A little more than a year ago, a few clever people noticed FTDI drivers were bricking these counterfeit chips by setting the USB PID to 0000. The Internet reacted to this move and FTDI quickly backed down from that position. The Windows driver was fixed, for about a year until the same shenanigans were found again.

Adafruit recently sat down with [Fred Dart], CEO of FTDI, giving us all the first facts and figures that aren’t from people frustrated with Windows’ automatically updated drivers. The most interesting information from [Fred Dart] is how FTDI first found these counterfeit chips, what FTDI chips are being counterfeited, and how many different companies are copying these chips.

The company first realized they were being cloned when they couldn’t reproduce results of a Chinese-made ‘FTDI’ USB to RS232 cable that behaved strangely. A sample of the cables were shipped to FTDI and after inspecting the chip inside, FTDI found it was a clone with a significantly different architecture than a genuine chip.

So far, the counterfeiters appear to only be counterfeiting the SSOP version of the FT232RL and occasionally the older FT232BL chip. From what FTDI has seen, there appears to be only one or two companies counterfeiting chips.

As the CEO of FTDI, [Fred] has a few insights into what can be done to stop counterfeiters in China. The most important is to trademark the logo. This isn’t just the logo for a webpage, but one that can be laser etched onto the plastic package of the chip. US Customs has been very amenable to identifying counterfeit components, and this has led to several shipments being destroyed. Legal action, however, is a bit hard in China, and FTDI is dealing with a gang that counterfeits more than FTDI chips; there’s a high likelihood this gang was responsible for the fake Prolific PL23o3 chips a few years ago.

As far as FTDI bricking counterfeit chips is concerned, [Fred Dart] wasn’t silent on the issue, he merely wasn’t asked the question and didn’t bring it up himself.

Federico Musto of Arduino SRL Shows Us New Products and New Directions

Recently, we sat down with [Federico Musto], CEO of Arduino SRL, for a chat about how the Italian Arduino firm was doing, what new products and projects they’ve got in the hopper, and what they’ve been up to for the last six months or so. It was high time!

Boards

The big story from our meeting, that [Federico] actually hinted at before, is the release of the Uno WiFi. How many projects have you seen on Hackaday that are based on an Arduino Uno with an ESP8266 WiFi module plugged into it? A bazillion. The Uno and ESP8266 are like the peanut butter and jelly of the last few years’ hacker zeitgeist.

Uno WiFi

arduino-uno-wifiThe Uno WiFi, then, is the Goober Grape (not an endorsement, you consume this stuff at your own risk). Less poetically put, Arduino has soldered the ESP8266 onto the Arduino Uno for you: no fiddling around with modules and pin-headers necessary. It’s not a ground-breaking innovation, but this is the kind of smart, community-led development that we like to see. You wanted cheap and easy WiFi on your Arduino? You got it.

Indeed, since the Arduino Yun came out, a lot of hackers were using it as a simple way to get their Arduino onto a wireless network: IoT and all that. When the ESP8266 hit the scene, many thought that the Yun looked dead in the water: with the ESP chip, you could get WiFi on your Arduino for half the price. But some folks need the extra power, or would rather just program in Python. Think of all the simple IoT projects based on the Raspberry Pi, for instance.

With the addition of the Uno WiFi, both the simple IoT devices and the more demanding applications can stay within the Arduino family. Go with the Uno WiFi if you want something networked but simple that the standard AVR ATmega328 processor can handle easily. If you actually need the extra computational power and flexibility of an embedded Linux distribution in addition to the ATmega, go for the Yun. If the ATmega isn’t cutting it, or if you need more power or peripherals from the microcontroller side, the new Tian board with its ARM Cortex-M0+ will fit the bill. It’s actually a compelling range of products even if they are superficially similar.

Tian

DSCF8150Which brings us to the Tian. The Arduino Tian is a neat new board, in our opinion. It’s got an integrated MIPS processor with 2.4 and 5GHz WiFi on board, as well as being able to do Bluetooth and Bluetooth LE. It runs faster than the Yun by a bit, and it’s got 4 GB of eMMC memory on-board so you don’t have to fool around with an external SD card as you do with the Yun or fruit-pastry Linux single-board computers.

We can’t decide if the Tian (or the Yun, for that matter) is a microcontroller with a Linux computer tacked on, or a Linux computer with a microcontroller to handle GPIO. Most of the applications that we’ve seen fit in with the former. We’d like to see more development on the Linux side, à la Raspberry Pi. In that light, we’re glad to see Arduino SRL continuing work on their Ciao library to help streamline communication between the microcontroller and the Linux box.

DSCF8151One of the cool tricks that [Federico] showed with the Tian was the ability to control the Linux computer from the Cortex M0+ microcontroller. As you can see in this prototype, only a few green wires (and some hot glue) were needed to make it work. The production version of the Tian should have this functionality built in.

As a demonstration, we SSH’ed into the Linux side of the Tian and pressed a button connected to the M0+ microcontroller.

The Linux side shut down gracefully, and we later booted it back up again. This is a particularly cool trick because the Linux side, with its fast processor and WiFi, is a power hog. The M0+ and its associated circuitry, on the other hand, run on very little power and can be throttled back into sleep mode when not crunching numbers. Although the boot-up time for the Linux side means that you wouldn’t be turning it on an off every few minutes, the ability to get the combined system into a low-power state for longer periods of time vastly increases the scope of projects where the Tian would be useful. Cute hack.

The Tian has only been available for about a month now. Have any of you tried one out?

Other Boards

DSCF8149[Federico] also showed us the Lei, which is a China-only Arduino board that combines the Tian’s Linux side with the Atmel ATmega part from the Yun, and has no onboard memory. It’s a cheaper hybrid between the two boards that [Federico] said wasn’t worth getting FCC certified for the US and the rest of the world. With the Yun and the Tian being so broadly similar already, we think that he’s probably right.

What the newest revision of the Yun, the Tian, and even the Lei have in common is that the microcontroller’s USB pins have been broken out to headers so that it could more easily be used as a standalone USB device. This gives even the cheapest boards in the family three ways to connect to USB — device mode through the microcontroller, and both host mode and USB OTG mode also through the Linux side. And it also enables shields, like this GSM shield below, to connect up to the microcontroller over USB. (Although the headers weren’t populated in this photo.)

DSCF8145This photo also shows a cute touch in the physical design of all of the Arduino SRL boards. All of the pinouts are labelled on the side of the female headers. Although we’re sure that you diehard Arduino fans out there can tell your A0 from your A5 in your sleep, we think it’s great not to have to go running back to the datasheet to double-check.

And finally, [Federico] showed me some of the new development they’ve been making on the Industrial and the Industrial 101 demonstration board. The Industrial is essentially the same Linux side as in the Yun, just in a smaller stand-alone package. Pairing this up with the Industrial 101 board, with its ATmega32u4 gives you essentially a Yun, but with a few more pinouts. We’re not yet sure what to make of the module-style packages that we’ve seen from many firms of late — we think that they’re too fidgety for hobbyists, and easy enough to DIY for a firm that’s producing tens of thousands of units. We could easily be wrong.

Anyway, the fun part about the Industrial 101 board was showing off all of the special shields that Arduino SRL has designed to go along with them. Here’s an OLED screen and joystick combo, for instance.

Free Stuff

If you’re interested in the Uno WiFi, you should probably check out the Arduino Christmas Challenge that’s going on through January 31st. If you enter a project on GitHub and register with Arduino, you stand a decent chance of winning a free Uno WiFi in January. (For what it’s worth, Arduino LLC and Microsoft are doing something similar. We’re not picking sides, just pointing out how to get free boards.)

IDE Developments

dl38We’d seen the new(ish) Arduino Studio development environment before, but it only just now made sense to us. Sure, it’s great to have a better editor than the old Java-based one. We’ve all been whining about the lack of code completion and so forth. The new editor environment, based on Adobe’s open-source Brackets editor is a huge step forward. But we’ve got a further direction that we’d like to see Arduino SRL take this, and the fact that the new editor is written in client-side Javascript is a big help.

The Yun, the Tian, and the China-only Lei boards all feature an OpenWRT-based Linux distribution onboard as well as WiFi connectivity. They also managed to get the entire GCC compilation chain compiling natively on the MIPS cores. It shouldn’t be too much more work to get a cross-compiler for the microcontroller up and running on the Arduino’s Linux side. Once that happens, you could compile and flash code onto the microcontroller entirely from within the Yun or Tian. Add in a nice, browser-based graphical editor, and you have a recipe for a self-contained development environment.

os.jsAnd [Federico] demoed some more tricks that point obliquely toward this future of Arduino-hosted Arduino development: we connected over the public Internet to an Arduino Yun in their R&D labs in Sicily that was serving an Arduino-branded version of OS.js, an “operating system” written in Javascript that runs in the client’s browser. Coupling something like OS.js to their Javascript-based Studio, running a cross-compiler on the Arduino’s Linux side would put the last pieces together to enable you to write, debug, and flash microcontroller projects completely on the Yun or Tian, without installing anything on your laptop other than a browser. The Arduino could become its own self-contained toolchain. How neat would that be? We hope we’re right.

Foundation and Stores

After months of legal work and lining up partners, Arduino SRL recently announced the formation of the Arduino Foundation. The Foundation is a non-profit that aims to give out Arduino boards and materials to schools and communities that might not have the resources to do so themselves, and also simply to give back to the Arduino community. In fact, the Uno WiFi Christmas challenge we mentioned above is sponsored by the Foundation.

manifestinoWe’d like to see the Foundation figure out how to reward the people who wrote popular Arduino libraries. In our mind, the success of Arduino is largely due to the enthusiastic and talented pool of coders who’ve written diverse libraries that support every kind of hardware peripheral known to man. There’s a million projects out there that simply use a Dallas one-wire temperature sensor or an RFM12B radio, and every one of them owes the coders who wrote the initial libraries a big debt. It’d be neat if the Arduino Foundation could find a way to pay some of this debt back. And from talking with [Federico], paying the community back is one of their main goals.

Arduino SRL has also thought about how to connect up better with the people making hardware that goes along with their boards — the shield-makers out there. [Federico] said that they’d open up their first brick-and-mortar Arduino store in Berlin any day now. The plan is to have a section of the store dedicated to community projects, giving the people who make shields and other add-ons a place to have their wares seen and sold. It’s also a clever way for the Arduino company to connect closer with the people who are doing the most innovative work in the Arduino ecosystem, so we think it’s a win all around.

And finally, we couldn’t talk Arduino without asking about the legal situation. Although everyone’s lawyers have been busy, [Federico] told me that there’s not much news on the trademark court cases since the last time we talked.

In Italy, and presumably the rest of the world outside of the USA, it’s all over but the shouting. It looks very likely that the court will rule for Arduino SRL, because Italy and Europe has a very straightforward trademark law — the company to file first essentially gets the trademark. And that was Arduino SRL.

Only in the USA is the situation more complicated, both because Arduino LLC filed first, and because it’s possible that Arduino SRL will demonstrate that they were producing boards with the Arduino name on them before Arduino LLC was even incorporated. We’re not lawyers, but this case certainly looks like it could go either way to us. And the US case is not likely to be settled until the summer of 2016, though, so don’t hold your breath.

Wrapup

Maybe 2015 will be remembered as the year of the dueling Arduinos, but we’re hopeful that instead it will be remembered as a year in which a bunch of new and improved Arduino hardware got released. From Arduino LLC, we’ve seen further collaborations with Intel. Arduino SRL has stayed true to their Linux and WiFi roots, coming out with the Tian, Industrial, and the Uno WiFi and continuing work on their operating system and the microcontroller interfacing. All in all, it’s been a good year for Arduino.

We’ve already hinted at some of what we’d like to see on the Arduino scene next year. What do you want to see for 2016?

[Federico Musto] of Arduino SRL Discusses Arduino Legal Situation

Recently we had the opportunity to sit down and interview Arduino SRL’s CEO, [Federico Musto], over a nice dinner. His company is one half of the Arduino vs Arduino debacle which has pitted Arduino.cc against Arduino.org in a battle over the trademark on “Arduino”.

Given the tremendous amount of press coverage of [Massimo Banzi] and the Arduino LLC side of the story (Arduino.cc), we were very interested in hearing how the whole situation looks where [Frederico Musto] sit (Arduino.org). In the end, we came away with what we feel is a more balanced and complete picture of the situation, as well as interesting news about future products from the Arduino SRL camp. [Musto’s] take on the legal proceedings, both past and present, is nothing short of fascinating.

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An Interview With The CEO Of MakerBot

A few days ago, we posed a question to the Hackaday community. If you could ask the CEO of MakerBot a question, what would it be?

It’s an interesting proposition; there is no company serving the maker community – and those of us who refuse to call ourselves part of the maker community – more hated than MakerBot. They’ve patented ideas uploaded to Thingiverse. They’ve turned their back on the open hardware community they grew out of, They’re undercutting their own resellers, and by all accounts, they don’t know how to make a working extruder. MakerBot was the company that would show the world Open Hardware could be successful, but turned into a company that seemed to reject Open Hardware and Open Source more than any other.

Needless to say, the readers of Hackaday responded. Not with actual questions for the MakerBot CEO, mind you, but oh how you responded. This effort by MakerBot was likened to the hail Mary thrown by Radio Shack  a few years ago. We know how that turned out.

Nevertheless, questions were collected, The MakerBot CEO was interviewed by Lady Ada, and a summary compiled. You can check that interview, originally posted on the Adafruit blog, below.

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Ask Hackaday (And Adafruit): The New CEO Of MakerBot

Just a few years ago, MakerBot was the darling of the Open Hardware community. Somehow, in the middle of a garage in Brooklyn, a trio of engineers and entrepreneurs became a modern-day Prometheus, capturing a burgeoning technology into a compact, easy to use, and intoxicating product. A media darling was created, a disruptive technology was popularized, and an episode of the Colbert Report was taped.

The phrase ‘meteoric rise’ doesn’t make sense, and since then the reputation of MakerBot has fallen through the floor, crashed through the basement, and is now lodged in one of the higher circles of hell. It’s not surprising; MakerBot took creations from their 3D object hosting site, Thingiverse, and patented them. The once-Open Source line of 3D printers was locked up behind a closed license. The new MakerBot extruder – the Smart Extruder – is so failure prone MakerBot offers a three pack, just so you’ll always have a replacement on hand. False comparisons to Apple abound; Apple contributes to Open Source projects. The only other way for a company to lose the support of the community built around it so quickly would be a name change to Puppy Kickers, LLC.

In the last few months, figurehead CEO of MakerBot [Bre Pettis] was released from contractual obligations, and MakerBot’s parent company, Stratasys, has filled the executive ranks with more traditional business types. It appears PR and Marketing managers have noticed the bile slung at their doorstep, and now MakerBot is reaching out to the community. Their new CEO, [Jonathan Jaglom] specifically requested a hot seat be built at Adafruit for an open discussion and listening meeting. Yes, this means Makerbot is trying to get back on track, winning the hearts and minds of potential customers, and addressing issues Internet forums repeat ad nauseam.

If you’ve ever wanted to ask a CEO how they plan to stop screwing things up, this is your chance. Adafruit is looking for some direction for their interview/listening meeting, and they’re asking the community for the most pressing issues facing the 3D printing community, the Open Source community, and MakerBot the company.

Already on the docket are questions about MakerBot and Open Source, MakerBot’s desire to put DRM in filament, the horrors of the Smart Extruder and the 5th generation MakerBots, problems with Thingiverse, and the general shitty way MakerBot treats its resellers.

This isn’t all Adafruit wants to ask; the gloves are off, nothing is off the table, and they’re looking for questions from the community. What would you like to ask the MakerBot CEO?

Personally, the best interview questions are when the interviewee’s own words are turned around on them. By [Jonathan Jaglom]’s own admission, the barrier to entry for 3D design work has been substantially lowered in the last three years, ostensibly because of incredible advances in Open Source projects. Following this, do MakerBot and Stratasys owe a debt to Open Source projects, and should Stratasys contribute to the rising tide of Open Source development?

That’s just one question. There will, of course, be many more. Leave them down in the comments. “You are not [Tim Cook],” while a valid statement in many respects, is not a question.

Interview With A Printer

The Hackaday European tour continues, this time in Prague with Josef Průša (Google translate), core developer in the RepRap project, feature at all the Maker Faires and cons, and creator of his namesake, the Prusa Mendel and i3 printers.

[Prusa]’s involvement with the RepRap project started with a RepRap Mendel, the second iteration of RepRap hardware, but the first popular and easy to build version. [Jo] found the Mendel rather difficult to build, so he loaded OpenSCAD and started to design his own version of the hardware. This version became the de facto standard RepRap for a few years, with many inspired by and derivative printers making their way to hackerspaces and workshops around the world.

The first Prusa printer, derived from the RepRap Mendel.
The first Prusa printer, derived from the RepRap Mendel.

A few years ago, [Prusa] was one of the first to make a complete break with the traditional ‘threaded rod and nut’ construction of RepRaps with the introduction of the Prusa i3. This was the first model that had a metal plate as the frame, another feature that would be seen in dozens of other models. It’s not something that was without controversy, either; using a metal plate for the frame doesn’t allow for as much self-replication, something that’s a core value of the RepRap project. That didn’t matter to the community; the Prusa i3 or a similar design is the third most popular printer on 3Dhubs.

The first Prusa printer showing off its Makerbot heritage
The first Prusa printer showing off its Makerbot heritage

What’s the future of the Prusa name? There is an i4 in the works, and I’m pretty sure that’s all I can tell you. Someone already bought the Prusai4 domain, so there may be a name change.

In the interview below, [Prusa] goes over his involvement with the RepRap project, his business, what he considers to be the latest advances in 3D printing for the past year, what the worst things about the 3D printing scene is (it’s Kickstarter), the state of the RepRap project, and thoughts on SLS, DLP, and SLA printing technologies. Video below.

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Hackaday Prize Finalist: A Portable SDR

No other project to make it to The Hackaday Prize has people throwing money at their computer screen hoping something would happen than [Michael Colton]’s PortableSDR. It’s a software defined radio designed for coverage up to 30MHz. Amateur radio operators across the world are interested in this project, going so far as to call this the first Baofeng UV-5R killer. That’s extremely high praise.

[Michael] was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions about how his entry to The Hackaday Prize has gone. You can check that out below, along with the final round video of the project. Anyone who wants their own PortableSDR could really help [Michael] out by taking this survey.

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