A history of development kits and community support

September 07, 2015

A history of development kits and community support

Back as a fresh-faced 18-year-old in his first days in the embedded industry, I quickly learnt students and hobbyists were considered little more than...

Back as a fresh-faced 18-year-old in his first days in the embedded industry, I quickly learnt students and hobbyists were considered little more than an inconvenient drain on support resources, be that commercial or technical. In fairness this was at a time when embedded computing technology remained a specialist niche and well before the term or even the philosophy of “ease of development” was conceived.

Hobbyists were viewed as motivated by paying as little as possible and placing as much a burden of support as they could on the respective supplier of their “toy” and of course only wanting one. Students alike were perceived as a drain on technical support, leaning on any resource they could justify to aid their learning with no awareness or care for their encumbrance.

Back then, a PC/104 card was the very height of technology and initial samples invariably were only available packaged within a £995 development kit, always a peculiarity for me as the PC/104 module itself, surely the most expensive component, only accounted for a quarter of this cost. Manufacturers of such exorbitant development kits put heavy emphasis on the elevated cost of the “custom” I/O cables bundled within such a kit, which of course the PC/104 card couldn’t function without as all I/O signals were accessible purely through pin headers.

The reality is that such cabling does not extend to hundreds of pounds; the murky secret is the remainder of that cost was an up-front charge for development technical support, whether you used it or not. Those proficient in embedded computing technology would baulk at these costs, but unless you wanted to take it upon yourself to make your own custom cables at the hardware evaluation stage, you were left with no choice.

This practise of “pre-charging” for support continued for some time, then disappeared altogether as the industry recognised its short-termism. In business, the instant gratification of a sizeable purchase order today is, especially by the bean counters, considered more important than an even larger one in X years’ time. The passage of time, during which those students graduated and became design engineers and key decision makers even further up the chain, started to cause shockwaves.

Those manufacturers who had “shunned the little guy” were now being shunned themselves and in a very big way. Those students and hobbyists that were priced out of the market by unaffordable development kits, or companies that spurned and belittled their support requests at critical stages of their fledgling engineering career, became brands permanently tarnished in that key decision maker’s eyes.

The embedded industry had an epiphany and swiftly removed those barricades. Gone were the prohibitively expensive development kits and cables became mass produced and bundled with every product, so each product was effectively that development kit of old. The negativity and reluctance to satisfy and support those who weren’t going to treble turnover today, but may well tomorrow, shifted into one of genuine long-termism, recognising the massive future influence he may yield.

Simultaneously, product designers, who were once proud of the complexity of the elitist embedded engineering faculty, recognised that same attitude was directly why so much support was needed. The embedded market began to recognise the advantages of what could be termed an “abstraction layer”, hiding the necessary complexity behind a wall of relative simplicity and enabling a far wider audience to get involved in pushing innovation.

That wider audience of course included those students and hobbyists, so today’s embedded manufacturers, well aware of the importance of tomorrow’s customers, will not make the mistakes of their forefathers. You’ll see evidence of this at any embedded exhibition, with effortless development suites screaming loudly from industry behemoth’s stands – with many even offering free editions of historically expensive software to get them on board at an early age.

Not only are today’s manufacturers willing to support, but often they don’t even have to. The emergence of the Internet as a key resource led to manufacturers setting up online communities where avid developers literally help each other. Not only does this push brand awareness and search engine rankings, but also fosters the community spirit that we see in our industry in 2015.

Rory Dear, European Editor/Technical Contributor