Microchip Publishes USB Mass Storage Loader

Microchip just published their USB-MSD Programmer firmware. This open source project allows a board to enumerate as a USB Mass Storage device. Programming is as simple as copying a .hex file to the “drive”.

This code is what’s running on the $10 Xpress board that they released last month which includes a PIC18F25K50 to serve as a PICkit On Board (PKOB) programmer for the actual target micro; a PIC16F18855. In its stock version, the XPRESS-Loader firmware programs any PIC16F188xx chips that have a row size of 32 words. But it should be possible to tweak this package to program any chips that use the 8-bit LVP-ICSP protocol.

Now, this may seem like small potatoes at first look: it requires two microcontrollers on your board and is capable of programming just a small subset of the vast PIC inventory. But in our minds it’s the USB-MSD that is killer since it doesn’t require any software or drivers on the computer side of things. That’s a big invitation for all kinds of hacks. But there should be even more on the way from the Xpress team before too long.

It turns out the microcontroller [Voja Antonic] chose to use on the Hackaday | Belgrade badge is the 25k50. Since hearing about the Xpress board we’ve been talking to some of the PIC engineers and they are exploring a loader that will program onto the same chip. This means device upgrades without special hardware or drivers – perfect for badge hacking at a conference. This can be done with a precompiled hex, one created on MPLAB X, MPLAB Xpress, or others. We’ll keep you updated if we hear more on that part of the project.

Wiring was Arduino before Arduino

Hernando Barragán is the grandfather of Arduino of whom you’ve never heard. And after years now of being basically silent on the issue of attribution, he’s decided to get some of his grudges off his chest and clear the air around Wiring and Arduino. It’s a long read, and at times a little bitter, but if you’ve been following the development of the Arduino vs Arduino debacle, it’s an important piece in the puzzle.

Wiring, in case you don’t know, is where digitalWrite() and company come from. Maybe even more importantly, Wiring basically incubated the idea of building a microcontroller-based hardware controller platform that was simple enough to program that it could be used by artists. Indeed, it was intended to be the physical counterpart to Processing, a visual programming language for art. We’ve always wondered about the relationship between Wiring and Arduino, and it’s good to hear the Wiring side of the story. (We actually interviewed Barragán earlier this year, and he asked that we hold off until he published his side of things on the web.)

The short version is that Arduino was basically a fork of the Wiring software, re-branded and running on a physical platform that borrowed a lot from the Wiring boards. Whether or not this is legal or even moral is not an issue — Wiring was developed fully open-source, both software and hardware, so it was Massimo Banzi’s to copy as much as anyone else’s. But given that Arduino started off as essentially a re-branded Wiring (with code ported to a trivially different microcontroller), you’d be forgiven for thinking that somewhat more acknowledgement than “derives from Wiring” was appropriate.

See what we mean?

The story of Arduino, from Barragán’s perspective, is actually a classic tragedy: student comes up with a really big idea, and one of his professors takes credit for it and runs with it.

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Stallman’s One Mistake

We all owe [Richard Stallman] a large debt for his contributions to computing. With a career that began in MIT’s AI lab, [Stallman] was there for the creation of some of the most cutting edge technology of the time. He was there for some of the earliest Lisp machines, the birth of the Internet, and was a necessary contributor for Emacs, GCC, and was foundational in the creation of GPL, the license that made a toy OS from a Finnish CS student the most popular operating system on the planet. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without [Stallman], open source software wouldn’t exist.

Linux, Apache, PHP, Blender, Wikipedia and MySQL simply wouldn’t exist without open and permissive licenses, and we are all richer for [Stallman]’s insight that software should be free. Hardware, on the other hand, isn’t. Perhaps it was just a function of the time [Stallman] fomented his views, but until very recently open hardware has been a kludge of different licenses for different aspects of the design. Even in the most open devices, firmware uses GPLv3, hardware documentation uses the CERN license, and Creative Commons is sprinkled about various assets.

If [Stallman] made one mistake, it was his inability to anticipate everything would happen in hardware eventually. The first battle on this front was the Tivoization of hardware a decade ago, leading to the creation of GPLv3. Still, this license does not cover hardware, leading to an interesting thought experiment: what would it take to build a completely open source computer? Is it even possible?

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32C3: A Free and Open Source Verilog-to-Bitstream Flow for iCE40 FPGAs

[Clifford] presented a fully open-source toolchain for programming FPGAs. If you don’t think that this is an impressive piece of work, you don’t really understand FPGAs.

The toolchain, or “flow” as the FPGA kids like to call it, consists of three parts: Project IceStorm, a low-level tool that can build the bitstreams that flip individual bits inside the FPGA, Arachne-pnr, a place-and-route tool that turns a symbolic netlist into the physical stuff that IceStorm needs, and Yosys which synthesizes Verilog code into the netlists needed by Arachne. [Clifford] developed both IceStorm and Yosys, so he knows what he’s talking about.

What’s most impressive is that FPGAs aren’t the only target for this flow. Because it’s all open source and modifiable, it has also been used for designing custom ASICs, good to know when you’re in need of your own custom silicon. [Clifford]’s main focus in Yosys is on formal verification — making sure that the FPGA will behave as intended in the Verilog code. A fully open-source toolchain makes working on this task possible.

If you’ve been following along with [Al Williams]’s FPGA posts, either this introduction or his more recent intermediate series that are also based on the relatively cheap Lattice iCEStick development kit, this video is a must-watch. It’s a fantastic introduction to the cutting-edge in free FPGA tools.

Rory Aronson on Documenting Open Source Projects

Every project starts off with an idea. Sometimes those ideas are bigger than one person, or even a small group of people. That was the position [Rory Aronson] found himself in with Farmbot, his finalist entry in the 2015 Hackaday Prize. Documentation was key for [Rory]. Farmbot first came into the world in the form of a white paper. The paper included a request for collaborators, making this an open source project from day 0. Documentation has been important throughout the Farmbot project, so it was naturally the topic of [Rory’s] talk at the 2015 Hackaday SuperConference.

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Open Source… Windows?

There’s a lot to be said for open source software. The ability to change code to suit one’s needs, the fact that security vulnerabilities can be easier to find, and the overall transparency are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the strengths of using open source software. And, while Microsoft is no Apple when it comes to locking down their source code, their operating system is still, unfortunately, closed.

Don’t despair, though! There is a project out there that aims to change this. No, they’re not stealing anything or breaking into any computers to obtain Microsoft’s code. They’re writing their own version of Windows called ReactOS that aims to be binary-compatible with Windows. The software has been in development for over a decade, but they’re ready to release version 0.4 which will bring USB, sound, networking, wireless, SATA, and many more features to the operating system.

While ReactOS isn’t yet complete for everyday use, the developers have made great strides in understanding how Windows itself works. There is a lot of documentation coming from the project regarding many previously unknown or undocumented parts of Windows, and with more developers there could be a drop-in replacement for Windows within a few years. It’s definitely worth a shot if you fondly remember the frontier days of Linux where doing things like reading information on a CD required extensive experience using the terminal. If this is a little too much, though, there are other unique operating systems out there to investigate.

Thanks for the tip, [Matt]!

Open Source FPGA Pi Hat

Over on Hackaday.io, [Dave Vandenbout] has posted the CAT board, a Raspberry Pi daughterboard hat that features a Lattice FPGA, 32 MB of RAM, EEPROM, and a few Grove and PMOD connectors. The CAT takes advantage of the open source tool chain available for Lattice including the Python-based MyHDL (although, you could just use Verilog directly, if you prefer) and Icestorm. One interesting point: you can run the tool chain on the Raspberry Pi, resulting in a self-contained and largely portable FPGA development environment.

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