In a way, it's a great time for the hobbyist innovator because all these development systems are out there for reasonable cost, as many of you have pointed out. Also, with ebay and craigslist it's possible to get test equipment cheap, and computing power being dirt cheap doesn't hurt.
What does hurt is the tiny size of the surface mount components! Hard to work with stuff you can't see! Why is it that stuff is getting smaller just when my eyesight is getting worse? I need the Reader's Digest enlarged components!
Another distinction I see in the engineering workplace is the "PowerPoint" engineers versus the worker bees that actually get the work done. Very rarely do you find someone who is good at both. Unfortunately, the ppte's are the ones that get promoted. I suppose we worker bees should learn how to work those presentation tools, but who has time?
And if I want to gripe, I could talk about the tendency in semiconductor companies (I only speak from 1 company experience, but I've heard it's common) for high-level people to do low-level work. The technicians do assembly work, the engineers do technician work, and the PhD's do the engineering work. 2 problems I see with that: 1) the company spends unnecessary money on salaries, and 2) people get tired of working below their capability and leave. I haven't figured out why this happens. In the other 6 non-semiconductor companies I've worked for I never saw this baloney.
My daily struggle exactly! I work in Zombie Central, although the company projects an image of being very innovative. My take is that only PhD's are supposed to innovate. Let me get this straight, people who have learned more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about nothing are supposed to be putting things together in new ways? And they are the only ones who are allowed to teach the classes for the future zombies?! What's wrong with this picture?
As a BSEE with some MSEE work, I heard my boss essentially tell me that some people are hired to innovate, but it's not for me. Yes, we need more zombies so the creative types like us can have the time to come up with new stuff for the zombies to build and sell. Jim Williams of Linear Technology expressed a similar thought as a company "eating its own seed corn" by forcing innovators to do the zombie work.
As for me, I'm too brainy to be interested in the zombie work but too practical to be interested in "ivory tower" academia. And the politics is disgusting in both situations. So here's what I do; keep on keeping on (to quote Bob Dylan) with the zombie work while innovating in my garage lab (you do have one, don't you?) on my own time and sometimes with my own money, and someday somebody's got to notice when I come up with something(s) revolutionary. Wish me luck!
Richard wrote: "there are a few little companies popping up here and there that try to sell some neat gadgets, but the climate has changed. I don't think the ground is as fertile as it once was."
Unfortunately very true (esp. the second sentence): Soon after the little company popps up it is faced with steppstones like RoHS, WEEE, CE etc. and fizzle away....
Imagine what would have happened to Apple etc. if such a bunch of regulations would have been in place back then!
I see some hope in a number of ways: there are more cheap, powerful microprocessors available today then even 5 years ago. There are many ways for innovation to be encouraged, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) comes to mind; Students build robots and program them to compete in regional competitions with creativity and energy. There are many other areas that encourage young students such as RC airplanes and model rocketry.
I have been in jobs were I was asked to do something new and creative and then was asked by management for a 100/0 yes/no answer if it can be done. The answer “it may be possible, but we cannot be sure until we succeed in making it work” (basically a 70/40 yes/no) does not please them. If you say yes and fail, you’re likely fired. If you say no, you may still have a job. I think it was R. Heinlein (an engineer) who said if you shoot every horse that tries and fails to jump the hurdle. All you will have left is horses that will not even try to jump the hurdle. We need to take away the bullets from the “failure is not an option” people and successes may happen more often.
Years ago I heard that profitable radio stations do not play anything but “mediocre” music because it does not drive people to switch to different stations. If “good” music is played it may wake up the audience and divide them. It seems people either fall into the really hate or really love a song camps if it is not mediocre and the majority of people that hate a song (even though the minority) may switch stations and decrease listeners. If a radio station plays nothing controversial and stays bland, its revenue will stay constant and predictively grow over time. If a radio station plays interesting and creative music, its ratings may fluxuate and cause revenue to fall or rise chaotically. It all has to do with advertising and what they can charge so they want stability have a sure thing to sell. So new creative music takes a back seat until that music becomes mainstream and profitable. Engineering is similar in many ways. Engineers can make up some whiz-bang device and if it makes a lot of money, that engineer gets an Atta boy from management. If the engineer owns the company, he’s a visionary. If the whiz-bang device fails, the engineer has wasted time, money, resources and etc. and with the job market the way it is, engineers are being more conservative with creativity. If the engineer is the owner and fails, he was a bad businessman. With non-engineer MBAs running most things predictably, creative engineers can scare them.
I wouldn't be too cynical, as I've seen the "Arduino: Getting Started" books for sale in the local supermarket. Likewise the Freescale tower kits are relatively inexpensive and accessible to high school geeks.
On the other hand I know what it's like to have an R&D idea rejected only to have a newspaper article trumpet the fact that a competitor was proceeding with the development of a new technology based on the very same ideas I had proposed a year earlier.