If you're a typical developer, your familiarity with the Arduino open-source hardware platform may be limited. Arduino, based on the Atmel AVR microcontroller, is positioned as an alternative to commercial controller boards. It's not free, but it is highly affordable: A "Getting Started With Arduino" dev kit will set you back only $70.
My sense is that users are boarding the Arduino bandwagon. Chatting with hobbyists at the end of July, I started to realize that Arduino has reached a critical-mass stage similar to where Linux was a decade ago. Its presence in home hobby markets may even influence how major commercial and industrial OEMs choose microcontroller architectures.
Oddly enough, it's not entirely clear that Atmel Corp., the developer of the AVR controller chip at the heart of Arduino, fully realizes how successful Arduino is becoming. Atmel is spending a good deal of time beefing up its higher-end line of ARM products, which makes sense, since the mainstream embedded computing industry lives and breathes by ARM cores. Still, Atmel realizes that 8- and 16-bit entry-level controller chips have always had a long, high-volume history for other semiconductor companies, and AVR will follow that trend -- with a kicker from the open-source home hobbyist community.
When Arduino was launched in 2005, it seemed at first to be an academia-based effort similar to many industry coalition attempts to offer open boards based on PC-AT and similar form factors. Arduino grew out of a program called Wiring, developed by an institute in Bogota, Colombia, and at MIT Media Labs. The Wiring project developed an open programming language and integrated development environment for embedded single-board computers. A team of Italian developers from Ivrea, home of Olivetti, developed an AVR board with open I/O pins in 2005 and offered Arduino to the open-source community.
It's the open I/O specifications that make Arduino different from previous board coalitions. The connectors are exposed and fully documented, so that amateurs can link the Arduino CPU to purpose-built add-on modules called "shields." By placing hardware details and the Arduino language within the Creative Commons licensing program, the Arduino movement encourages sharing and innovation among hardware hobbyists in the same way Linux encouraged growth of open applications.
The program already has grown beyond the boundaries of an AVR CPU, with at least two companies offering ARM CPUs, and another offering modules based on the Microchip PIC family.
The practice among the online hobbyist community is to collaborate whenever possible in the design of unique appliances or robots, which can share modules of common functions, even as the specific devices from individual hobbyists are differentiated from those of collaborators and competitors.
Arduino's success has spurred similar efforts in the traditional-architecture microcontroller community. Freescale Technology, for example, sponsored a "Make It" contest in June at its technology forum, in which hobbyist contestants would build robots and appliances based on Freescale Tower, which borrows board-level concepts from Arduino.
Ultimately, the most important aspect of Arduino's spread may not be the mix of AVR, PIC, ARM, and similar controller chips used in industrial control and robotics. Rather, it will enable more bottom-up industrial design coming from amateurs, some of which may gain the angel financing to become semiprofessional. Efforts like this help a new generation of startups emerge.