上网时间: 2014年05月13日? 作者:Junko Yoshida? 我来评论 【字号: ? ?小】

关键字:创客? 芯片厂商? 开发板?

Will ‘Makers’ Help Chip Guys’ Bottom Line?

Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent

MADISON, Wis. -- Am I the only one scratching my head over this newborn love among “makers,” board vendors, and chip companies? What mystifies me most is not so much the love part, but how anyone could eventually mistake this infatuation for good business.

OK, there are a few random facts I’ve picked up in the past few months. First, chip suppliers today are going out of their way to help out non-engineering professionals in pursuit of DYI projects, or those who say they are.

To cater to this crowd, it isn’t enough just to give them traditional reference design. Freescale Semiconductor, for one, hopes to mine the crowd, despite an absence of hardware design expertise. It possesses some specific domain knowledge that might project it as the source of the next hot wearable device.

Freescale earlier this year launched new reference design called WaRP. Freescale is adding to its platform a broad range of wearable building blocks (sensors, software, connectivity, etc.) from which makers can pick and choose what they need to scale up or scale down the device.

Marvell recently announced Kinoma Create. In pursuit of Web designers, software developers, and non-engineering professionals with no prior experience in designing a system, Marvell designed Kinoma Create, a JavaScript-powered maker kit for prototyping consumer electronics and IoT devices. Peter Hoddie, Marvell’s Kinoma vice president, described the kit as “much more complete than what a single-board computer can offer.”

It comes with "a case to make it portable, a battery to make it mobile, adjustable legs to reorient it, and an integrated breadboard for adding sensors -- no soldering iron needed," he said. But the beauty part (they say) is that users can integrate all the necessary elements with the higher-level JavaScript software.

Allwinner in China seemed delighted when pcDuino picked Allwinner’s apps processor as the brain for its motherboard. All the hard work needed to make a variety of Arduino hardware -- developed by the open-source hardware community -- pluggable to pcDuino has been carried out by the pcDuino community, not Allwinner. pcDuino, with no help from Allwinner, is enabling makers to design everything from a new smoke detector (which sends a message to your smartphone to change batteries, instead of making annoying beeping sounds in the middle of the night) to virtual desktops.

Below $100

Next: Companies are putting out reference design-turned single computer boards at a price point around $100. At a time when you can get a Raspberry Pi, a credit card-sized board with a Broadcom SoC running Linux at only $35, even $100 seems pretty expensive to some makers.

A startup, Adapteva, last year launched a parallel-processing board called Parallella using a Kickstarter campaign. The company recently started building 1,400 boards a week and began “shipping mass quantities to Kickstarter backers, many of whom have waited almost 18 months.” The Parallella board is priced… well you guessed it… at $99.

Similarly, Marvell last month launched Kinoma Create at Indiegogo, another crowd-funding site. Now the Kinoma Create, scheduled to start shipping in September, is priced at $149.

As Andreas Olofsson, Adapteva’s CEO, told us, “Apparently, nobody any longer buys a $1,500 reference design from a chip company.” As discouraging as all this sounds, the new “maker” movement opens opportunities for chip vendors to move devices and reference designs into the hands of people they’ve never sold chips to before. “If it is under $100, even a professional engineer could use his personal credit card to try out a new chip in his spare time over the weekend,” he explained. That’s not bad for Adapteva, which is hoping to sway engineers to try out the company's low-power multicore microprocessor design.

By selling Parallella to the general public on their website, Oloffson said, “We now know who bought our boards.” The company is trying to build a community whose members can help one another.

There is one problem. So far, few “members” have written in to the so-called community. “We have little idea how those buyers -- who haven’t asked us questions -- are doing with our board. For that matter, we don’t even know if they actually opened the box we shipped.”

'Do it for credit'

Just to be clear, there is nothing new about the maker movement. For decades, DYI guys have tinkered away, happily getting their hands dirty with real hardware. Two things transformed the traditional DYI movement into a broader maker movement, according to Sagar Jethani, head of content at element14, owned by a global distributor, Premier Farnell: “the pricing [of boards] and the Internet.”

Priced below $100, even if you can’t get it working to its full capability, you don’t have to feel so bad, Jethani explained. Besides, at $35, Raspberry Pi is positioned as an educational tool, helping students understand how to solve problems using electronics.

The Internet created a tailwind for makers. “If you’re stuck with your DIY project, you can always search your question on Google and get the answer.” Jethani thinks the electronics industry has overcome its initial skepticism toward makers. “They used to ask questions like how many ‘makers’ are really engineers” to whom they can sell their products?

Makers today include everyone from DYIers, to professional engineers, to so-called “weekend warriors.” Labels have become irrelevant.

Distributors like Premier Farnell are finding an opportunity to sell a host of components ranging from LEDs, sensors, and passives to CAD soft and even oscilloscopes to this new breed of buyers. As they get to know makers, they realize they have “a lifecycle of future products” to offer them, he explained.

So, it’s good news for distributors who stock a vast array of components. But what about chip vendors?

For one, Freescale's CEO takes a long view on the maker movement. "To a large extent our energies are focused on the universities and even the high school level," said Gregg Lowe in an interview with EE Times. It's not just DIY, he said, it's do it for credit, as a way to get engineers hooked in early to Freescale products.

Huge gap

That said, the reality is that there remains a huge gap between the two ends of the spectrum. On one end, there are small guys who want to become the next NEST, but can’t buy chips in small quantities to test the market. On the other hand, big chip vendors are used to selling chips to name brands in bulk, and they tend not to know how to price a handful of chips for small guys.

Distributors see themselves at the crossroads of semiconductor companies and board vendors. They believe they’re in the best position to steer those two suppliers toward the dream board that makers are looking for.

But chip vendors need to get more creative if they want the maker movement to become more than just a sideshow. Let me be clear. Chip vendors love open source communities for one reason. As long as they enable small and medium entities to design a variety of new devices, it solves the pesky problem of hand-holding OEMs.

Take wearable devices. Chip vendors can't afford to spare resources for every wearable startup. It sucks the life out of them. We are no longer in the old era when chip vendors could spend a lot of money hiring field application engineers to support their customers.

To find a gem out of millions (a leading wearable device vendor who is neither Sony nor Samsung) won’t be easy. The chip vendor’s dream scenario is to discover or build an open source community where friends help friends -- free. That hasn’t happened yet. Who knows if it ever will?

Because that ideal is a long shot, chip vendors still need to take chances -- by picking the designers and developers whom they deem worthy of support. In that sense, Marvell might have the right idea. It is selectively working with a few people who initially jumped in and got their hands on Kinoma Create at Indiegogo. Marvell is supporting them in an effort to create superstars, according to Hoddie. Every chip company who wants to sell its chips still needs superstars.

One more thing. As element14’s Jethani put it, there has to be a balance. He equated makers with Miracle Grow and the conventional volume chip business with a lawn. He said, “Too much Miracle Grow? You kill the lawn.”

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