Arduino Creator Massimo Banzi

Keep It Simple

Article from Issue 214/2018

Arduino's cofounder describes the quest for simplicity.

I am a massive fan of Arduino. Every year, during Christmas and Halloween, I build some exciting projects for outdoor display. All my projects are powered by Arduino and Raspberry Pi boards. Even my fully open source Original Prusa MK2 3D printer is powered by an Arduino board. When I found that Massimo Banzi, the Arduino project's cofounder, was at the same event I was attending, I reached out to him, and we sat down for an hour-long interview.

Banzi also teaches interaction design at many universities in Europe. That's how Arduino started. Back in 2002, Banzi went to teach at a design school in Northwest Italy called the Interaction Design Institute. The objective of teaching was to apply design principles to the way we interact with things made of digital technologies. It's no longer about rotating dials and pushing buttons. It's about sensors, web interfaces, and touch screens. It could be a challenge to borrow and bring ideas from the physical world into a digital world. As a result, some of these things can be really easy, simple, and pleasurable to use, and some can be very annoying.

"We try to make it simple and easy for people to use things that we design using modern technologies. We worked at trying to figure out how to make electronics simple enough that anyone could pick it up in a few weeks and use it as a creative tool," he said. "I had been working on a number of projects to achieve that, and the last project summarized all of that research. That project was Arduino."

Why Open Source?

Massimo and other cofounders of the project decided to develop Arduino as an open source project. As a long time Linux user, he had seen the power of the open source communities driven by countless passionate users. "When these technologies start to solve problems in people's lives, they look for new ways to use them. You start seeing these technologies in places you didn't even imagine in the first place. Traditionally, it would be very difficult to reach those places with a top-down approach, but open source makes adoption extremely easy."

Initially, Arduino did not manufacture hardware. They were giving away designs and people were building their own hardware. "Then we realized that we needed to simplify this by providing them with ready-made hardware, so they could start creating the project they wanted to do instead of wasting their resources on hardware," said Banzi.

To support hardware manufacturing, marketing, sales, and management, the Arduino project launched a company with the same name. "Everything we do is open source. Whether it's hardware, software, or IDE; even our documentation is released under a Creative Commons license. The only thing that's protected by the company is the brand Arduino. Our technology and knowledge are available for everybody. We make Arduino-branded hardware that supports all the work that we do on the platform. Open source enables users to add features to Arduino that they want in their hardware," he said.

I often come across people from within the desktop Linux community who don't approve of the commercialization of open source. I asked Banzi for his thoughts on it. "A lot of people don't realize all important open source projects, including Linux, have a majority of contributors that are paid by some company to do that work. Yes, there are volunteers who contribute because they use and feel like contributing, but the bulk of the contribution these days comes from paid contributors. So our business model enables us to support the open source side of things," he said.

Arduino Triggered a Revolution

A lot of people never thought that they would be embedded developers, but they discovered the Arduino and started to build things. "One of the tricks was to basically not tell them that they were embedded developers. Enable them to use electronics as a creative medium," Banzi told me. "The first people who used Arduino were designers, artists, musicians, [and] performers. It started off as a highly creative tool, and then it became a tool for people to also innovate on products. Arduino enabled thousands of people to start using electronics as a tool to innovate and create companies."

Arduino is being used in so many use cases that it's virtually impossible to keep a tab on all of the adoptions. At the beginning of Arduino's history, the goal was to teach people how to use microcontrollers to build things. And then the Internet of Things (IoT) happened. It created a new problem – how to make it easier for people to build IoT projects. At the same time as many other open source projects, single board computers happened. These devices run Linux and Linux, still requires quite a bit of knowledge, especially embedded Linux.

"Recently, I was teaching a class on how to apply machine learning and artificial intelligence creatively, and I realized that we are still in a world where technology is becoming extremely powerful, but the tools that we use are very complex. There is still room to make it all simpler," he said.

Arduino went back to its core mission and decided to create tools that are simple to use – tools that support classic use cases so people can easily build functioning IoT projects without having to understand every single technology along the chain.

"We are going to be releasing a ton of open source software, but our focus is always on the user experience. Our focus is how to make the experience of building an IoT application very simple – all the way from the node that's connected to your sensor, to the edge gateway, to the cloud, to the way you view the data. Everything needs to be seamless and simple to use. So that's one of the things we're focusing on right now," he said.

The result of all this work is a new development platform called Arduino Cloud. "Arduino Cloud started off with us taking our development environment and putting it into the cloud. All you need is just a browser and you can edit code. You can compile the code. You can download it into different Arduino boards," said Banzi, "Then we started to add a section where people can publish very detailed tutorials on how to build things so that if you see someone else's project and you want to build it, just press a button and that becomes a project in your cloud. It allows easy sharing of knowledge and collaboration."

Millions of people are interested in Arduino but don't know how to program. Arduino Cloud provides them with hardware, a platform, and a knowledge base so they can start building IoT projects. Arduino Cloud uses Amazon Web Services (AWS) and is available for free of cost. However, Arduino is also working on a paid version that will offer additional services.

It's a natural evolution for the Arduino project, which started with the goal of keeping it simple.

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