Over the weekend I attended the “Unofficial Propeller Expo” at Parallax in Rocklin, CA. Parallax got its start over 20 years ago in a garage where Chip Gracey built small boards, called “BASIC Stamps” that gave people an inexpensive and fast way to learn about and use microcontrollers. Over the years, Parallax had designed new products, created robot kits, published educational materials and books, and produced accessories for hobbyists, experimenters, and educators (www.parallax.com).
But Parallax has done more than carve out a nice business where none existed. Along the way it inspired others to create competitive products that take a similar approach to plug-in MCU boards and products. Look in electronics magazines and you can find PICAXE, Chipino, Netburner, USB Stamp, and many other modules based on the BASIC Stamp approach. The availability of a wide range of modules will inspire other competitors and entrepreneurs who use the modules as a way to create their own product. And competition keeps companies on their toes.
During the Propeller Expo I also saw products from small companies that complement those from Parallax. One company produces a series of add-on modules and breadboards that let you quickly connect to stepper motors, high-current loads, sensors, serial ports, and so on (www.mikronauts.com). Another company produces laser-cut acrylic cases for Parallax boards and modules (www.mountainkingtech.com). So one entrepreneur begets others and the process continues.
The folks at Parallax have not stood still as competitors jumped in. A few years ago, Chip Gracey designed the 8-core Propeller MCU chip that can tackle eight threads without the need for an operating system. People have demonstrated the Propeller in many interesting projects and products. Chip and one of his Parallax colleagues–yes, a 2-person IC-design team–have almost completed the design of the Propeller II chip that will furnish designers with eight processors, lots of memory, and many, many sophisticated I/O devices and ports. And the Prop II IC isn’t an FPGA. It’s a custom device.
I bet many of us have our own story about an entrepreneur or small company that made good. So the next time you hear someone say there’s no longer any innovation and we’re run out of people with the entrepreneurial spirit, I hope you’ll explain why they’re wrong. I’ve had the good fortune to see many small businesses get off the ground and become successful. –Jon Titus