Are you seeing this newborn love among "makers," board vendors, and chip companies? What mystifies me is not so much the love part, but how anyone could eventually mistake this infatuation for good business.
By selling Parallella to the general public on its 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, DIY guys have tinkered away, happily getting their hands dirty with real hardware. Two things transformed the traditional DIY 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 DIYers, 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 software 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.
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 midsized 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 that 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 that 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.”
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, and additional reporting by Susan Rambo, Executive Editor, EE TimesEE Times