Are you a Software Developer or Software Engineer?

Are you a Software Developer or Software Engineer?

I recently answered this question on Quora and thought this would make a good blog article, I think the question is quite interesting for anyone who writes software for a living.

Over time, software developers have become specialist language developers, in other words, you get .NET developers, C++ developers, Java Developers, etc… and there are several reasons for this happening. It seems like every week there is a new language that promises to be the solution for all the problems with programming languages that have come before, or a new design pattern that emerges because of a new capability in a given language. On top of that, languages have become so complex and so a fair degree of specialization is required to make good use of what is available.

The problem with this programming language specialization is the focus tends to shift from business focus to language/technology focus and this is what a lot of traditional software developers have become. For example, .NET developers want to use the latest .NET x feature, or C++ developers feel they must use the newest coroutine capability in C++20. Suppose I need to implement a function that takes a file and transforms it into another file, using std::filesystem instead of POSIX filesystem functions, that may well be exciting for me as a C++ developer getting to use some of the new C++17 features for the first time, but the business value of my output is no different. In truth, the business value I deliver would be lower because it will take more of my time while I figure out that new language feature.

Software developers tend to focus on their specialization, “I am a C++ programmer” or “I am a .NET C# developer” is how someone might describe what they do.

Software engineers are a different type of developer. The language one might use is really just a tool, an engineer might have tool(s) of choice, but actually care more (a lot more) about the needs of the business and the problems they are solving, than they do about using the latest language feature and the newest compiler to solve the problem. The output of a Software Engineer is always more aligned with business value delivered than that of a Software Developer (using the above definitions).

In my experience, quite a large portion of software developers get bored of creating the same old business value stuff, and are not “fulfilled” either personally or from a resume/career progression point of view, if the focus is not on using latest compiler features, patterns or new things that will define their skill set. This is because they are more engaged with the technology and specialization domain than the value they are supposed to be creating. The second most common reason for software developers to change jobs (the first being the pay, of course) is to take the opportunity to work on that new cool thing that will excite them. If you fall into this category, then you are a software developer, and you will ultimately be a commodity to the organizations you work for.

Being an engineer is much more about being engaged and aligned with your companies strategic aspirations and goals. If you find yourself believing in your companies mission; and you naturally interact with customers, and immerse yourself in the problems your customers are facing daily – and – you understand the overall systems architecture – and – you are employed primarily to write software; you are almost certainly a Software Engineer – the type that all good software companies aspire to hire.

A good way to think about it is this. If the product you work on is “your product” and you have to not only write it but support it, sell it and evangelize about it, these are the things you would do as a software engineer within a company. Ok, you might not go out and do the selling directly, but you would certainly have a stake in the success of sales activity.

Now you cannot just change your title from Developer to Software Engineer and expect to get more job opportunities or better pay! If you are going to call yourself a Software Engineer, then you need to exhibit the characteristics of one, people that look for software engineers are experienced enough to recognize them, and see through the ones that are only pretending/hoping to be an engineer.

More and more companies are looking to hire Software Engineers and not Software Developers, be honest with yourself and ask yourself the question: –

Are you a Software Developer or Software Engineer?

Microsoft says – Don’t Use IE!

Microsoft says – Don’t Use IE!

So I read this post and all the comments and think to myself – no one seems to be saying it!  So I will… (obviously)

For more years than I can remember, Microsoft has had a habit of pushing “the enterprise” down its own path, with an obvious (to me anyway) lock-in strategy.  IE over the years has shown this up time and time again.  I thought Chris Jackson’s comments were a little bit dismissive of Microsoft’s responsibilities here, and I wanted to state that the reason why IE/Edge is still required by many customers is that Microsoft’s platform, especially Microsoft’s development environments have made use of the IE-specific quirks, leaving vast swathes of enterprise-developed apps depending on IE. 

Even worse, so many ISV’s have jumped on the “easier to develop” enterprise software platform (started with VB back in the day, right through to .NET and its kin today) building software for sale that organizations have purchased and gotten tied into.  Be it, ASP.NET, or ActiveX or Silverlight (what a mess that was) the numerous browser quirks and non-standard, undocumented esoteric behaviors in the Microsoft browsers.  I think there was a time when Microsoft was trying to be the standard browser of choice, but failed miserably at it.  I do like Chris’s advice though, and as someone that is responsive web software development, I wish I did not have customers DEMAND we support IE11 because that’s their standard browser, it’s annoying and frustrating and not of our own making.  

Three years ago, we relegated development for IE to “best-endeavour” only, that means we will put reasonable effort into fixing anything obvious but have drawn the line and doing IE/Edge specific workarounds/hacks for our software. That has sadly left some of our customers stuck with different browsers for different applications, but we do not accept that is a problem of our making, we used to feel bad when our customers would tell us “well you are not Microsoft so fall in line” – not anymore! 

Now before I start to sound like I am hating on Microsoft, I must make clear that in recent years I think Microsoft has done a remarkable job, a remarkable turn-around even.  Windows 10 is orders of magnitude better than any Microsoft OS before it, Edge is not terrible and mostly works, although it’s still quirky. And hats off, O365 is a winner – very nicely done team Microsoft. 

Dear Microsoft, if it were up to me…

  • You have the capability, the developers, and the financial resources, probably more than most other software companies in the world, go and build a world-class standards-based browser, do for your browser what you already did for C++
  • Or, hurry up and develop your chromium-based browser and get shot of IE and Edge as soon as you can.
  • Go and help your customers remove their technical debt in relation to IE, its not their fault entirely, you created the environment – help your customers fix it
Why does C still exist, when C++ can do everything C can?

Why does C still exist, when C++ can do everything C can?

This was a question asked on Quora and the top voted answer was airing on the side of it being cultural or personal preference. I don’t think the answer is culture or preference; there is an excellent reason why both C and C++ exist today. C++ is not a good alternative to C in some particular circumstances.

Many people suggest that C++ generates more inefficient code, that’s not true unless you use the advanced features of the language. C++ is generally less popular for embedded systems such as microcontrollers because its code generation is far less predictable at the machine-code level, primarily due to the compiler optimizations. The smaller and more resource-limited the target system, the more likely that C is a better and more comfortable choice for the developer, and this is often the reason people suggest that C++ can not replace C, and that is a very good reason indeed.

However, there’s another even more fundamental reason that C remains a critical tool in our armory. Imagine you create your very own new CPU or computing architecture for which there is no C or C++ compiler available to you – what do you do? The only option you have is to write code using some form of assembly language, just as we did in the early ’80s when programming IBM PC’s and DOS, before even C, became mainstream. (yes there was a time when C was more obscure than x86 assembly!) Now imagine trying to implement a c++17 standards-compliant C++ compiler and STL library in assembly language, that would be a daunting, and unimaginable task for an organization of any size, right?

On the other hand, a C compiler and a standard C runtime library, while still not an insignificant effort, is a hell of a lot more achievable, even by a single developer. In truth, you would almost certainly want to write some form of assembler/linker first to make writing the C compiler simpler. Once you have a standards-compliant C compiler working well enough, then a vast array of libraries and code written in C becomes available, and you build out from there. If your target platform did require a c++17 standards compliance c++ compiler, you would write that in C.

The C language holds quite a unique position (possibly only comparable to early Pascal implementations) in our computer engineering toolbox, its so low level, you can almost visualize the assembly code that it generates, just by reading your C code which is why it lends its self so well to embedded software development. Despite this though, C remains high-level enough to facilitate the building of higher-level application program logic and quite complex applications. Brand new C++ compilers would most likely get written in C, at least for early iterations, you can think of C as an ideal bootstrap for more significant and more comprehensive programs like an operating system or a C++ compiler/library.

In summary, C has its place, and its hard to see any good reason to create an alternative to C, its stood the test of time, its syntax is the founding father of the top modern-day languages (C++, C#, Java, JavaScript, and numerous others, even Verilog). The C language is not a problem that needs to be solved, and the C language does not need to be replaced either. Like oxygen, C is old hat now, but it works well, and in the world of software development, we still need it.

So tell me team…. “How Long Will That Take?”

So tell me team…. “How Long Will That Take?”

I was inspired to write this blog post in response to a post I came across today on LinkedIn about sizing software projects. (link below). Sizing software projects is the thing that most everyone gets wrong, its hard and almost impossible to get an accurate estimate, why is that?

Well apart from scope creep, budget changes and all the usual business variables mentioned by Patrick in his blog post, developers and product teams will never be consistent in their output, not even if you average it out over a long time which is what SCRUM/other agile methodologies suggest when trying to establish velocity – that simply does not work, it is a fallacy. Writing software is an iterative and creative process so “how someone feels” will change output, and I am not talking about how someone feels about the project or work, I am talking about how someone feels about their cat dying, or their wife being pregnant or political changes or the weather, or the office banter or how unwell/well they feel today, in fact “life” guarantees this. So I am going to be a bit outrageous here and suggest an alternative way of thinking about this. Let us start with asking the most important question – “what is the point of estimating”? there are only two possible answers to that question….

1. You are going to undertake some work which you will charge your client for so you need to know what to charge them.

The only possible way you can give your client a fixed price for work that is essentially a creative process is by substantially over-pricing the work estimate and giving yourself lots of fat in the deal to give you the best opportunity of making a profit at the end of it. If you think that you can ask a team of developers to tell you how long it is going to take so you can make a “fair” markup you’re deluded. The best option you have in this scenario is to work backwards, you need to understand the need the client has at a high level, then you need to establish the value that your customer is getting from the thing you would deliver, then you put a price on it, you are looking for the best possible price the customer is willing to pay, you should not at this point be trying to establish “how much will it cost”, you must be asking the customer “how much are you prepared to pay”. Once you have a number, now you can work with your developers, but instead of saying “how long will it take” you are asking “can it be done in this timeframe…”, that may seem a subtle difference but it is actually huge because in answering that your developers will take “ownership” of the delivery commitment and that is what you need to stand any chance of being successful. The risk you are taking is on your team, not the project – if your team succeeds then you and your business do, if they fail so do you.

2. Your organisation wants to know how much and how long this new software thing is going to take/cost so they can “budget” and control and cost overrun.

The reason to budget is because managers and finance people (and he people that own the actual money that gets spent) generally need to *know* how much it costs in order to feel like they are doing their job. This really comes from an age where output was quantifiable (manufacturing for example), but creative IP output is much harder to quantify because there are so many variables that are outside of your control.

Think about this, you wake up one day and have a great idea to write a piece of software that will change the world; you believe it is going to make you your fortune. You are so confident that you leave your day job, set up your business and your first day you sit down and start to change the world – what is the first thing you are going to do?

I am going to bet that you will NOT crack open Excel and start to do a time estimate and a budget – Instead you will most likely start making your software. So you get on with it, now project forwards, you have created your software and you start to sell it things go well, in fact so well that you have to hire a manager or two, then you go and raise some funding to go global with your idea. Now something important happens, instead of spending your time making that thing you believe in, now the people who invested money (which may well be yourself) will want to protect that investment so they put management controls in place, and when the question “To get this thing to the next level, what do we need to do” is asked of you, and you answer “We need to build X, Y and Z” the dreaded question comes – “How long will that take?” which roughly translates to “how much will that cost”, this is because the people asking that question are in fact trying to protect cash and de-risk the investment – they don’t believe in the thing you are building in the same way that you do, the thing is just a means to an end – profit (which by the way is a good thing).

Going back to that first day, if you had tried to budget and determined it was going to take you six months before you could sell your first one, and after six months you realise you were not even half way there and you had another 12 months to go – would you stop? Well you would make sure that you could pay the bills and survive of course, but if you decide to stop, it would not be because of your budget, you would stop because with hindsight you no longer believed the idea was as good as you first thought – otherwise you would plough on regardless right?

So back to the boardroom then, and the “How long will it take”? question. Well the answer to that question should be, “I have no idea – how important is it”? Because either its important and it has to get done or its not that important.

You would be a little more committal than that but you get the idea. If you assume that an acceptable level of estimating effort was going to be 25% of the overall development effort (which has been my experience in software development) and if you have a thing that needs to get done because its strategically important for the business to flourish – then how long it takes is irrelevant, its either strategically important and it gets done, or its not. So if it “just has to get done” what on earth are you trying to estimate how long it will take for – just get on with it and use that 25% for making the thing you are trying to make – just like you did in the first six months of your enterprise.

You need to ask the same question about how important is it and what is it worth to the business, this is the question that the people trying to de-risk are not wanting you to ask, because they will find that question as difficult to answer as you will trying to answer the “how long will it take” question. Of course for trivial stuff like defects and general maintenance/tactical incremental development work this does not really apply, but for big projects that have strategic importance the “how long will it take?” question is a nonsense question to ask because any answer you get will be either fictitious or grossly over estimated, and both of these are bad.

If you want to get something strategically important created, hire a great team and empower them to get on with it – if you are making them spend their time telling you how much it will cost to develop instead of developing it then you are failing – not them. As a manager, entrepreneur, director or investor, hire software developers to do what they do best – make software, it is your job to take and manage the investment risk, if the team fail then you either hired the wrong team or you did not manage the business well enough to sustain the effort required to make it happen, asking them for an estimate is just a way of getting a stick to beat and blame them when things are not going well.

I have been managing (arguably very loosely) software development projects and a software business for the best part of 20 years, and I have learned a few things along the way. Perhaps more importantly I have been doing this largely investing my own money, so I think I know both sides of the “How long does it take” question very well.

The article I responded to
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/software-project-estimation-broken-patrick-austin

Microchip PIC chips could have been the Power Behind Arduino!!!

Microchip PIC chips could have been the Power Behind Arduino!!!

So before I get underway, this article is about Microchip PIC micro-controllers. Please understand – I don’t want to get into a flamewars with Atmel, MPS430 or other fanboys, my personal preference has been PIC’s for many years, thats a statement of personal preference, I am not saying that PIC’s are better than anything else I am just saying I like them better – please don’t waste your time trying to convince me otherwise, I have evaluated most other platforms numerous times already – so before you suggest I should look at your XYZ platform of choice, please save your time – the odds are good I have already done so and I am still using PIC’s

OK, full RANT mode enabled…

As I understand it Microchip are in the silicon chip business selling micro-controllers – actually Microchip make some really awesome parts and I am guessing here but I suspect they probably want to sell lots and lots of those awesome parts right? So why do they suppress their developer community with crippled compiler tool software unless you pay large $$$, after all, as a silicon maker they *NEED* to provide tools to make it viable for a developer community to use their parts? It is ridiculous charging for the tools – its not like you can buy Microchip tools and then use them for developing on other platforms so the value of these tools is entirely intrinsic to Microchip’s own value proposition. It might work if you have the whole market wrapped up but the micro-controller market is awash with other great parts and free un-crippled tools.

A real positive step forward for Microchip was with the introduction of MPLAB-X IDE – while not perfect its infinitely superior to the now discontinued MPLAB8 and older IDE’s which were, err, laughable by other comparable tools. The MPLAB-X IDE has a lot going for it, it runs on multiple platforms (Windows, Mac and Linux) and it mostly works very well. I have been a user of MPLAB-X from day one and while the migration was a bit of a pain and the earlier versions had a few odd quirks, every update of the IDE has just gotten better and better – I make software products in my day job so I know what it takes, and to the product manager(s) and team that developed the MPLAB-X IDE I salute you for a job well done.

Now of course the IDE alone is not enough, you also need a good compiler too – and for the Microchip parts there are now basically three compilers, XC8, XC16 and XC32. These compilers as I understand it are based on the HI-TECH PRO compilers that Microchip acquired when they bought HI-TECH in 2009. Since that acquisition they have been slowly consolidating the compilers and obsoleting the old MPLAB C compilers. Microchip getting these tools is a very good thing because they needed something better than they had – but they had to buy the Australian company HI-TECH Software to get them, it would appear they could not develop these themselves so acquiring them would be the logical thing to do. I can only speculate that the purchase of HI-TECH was most likely justified both internally and/or to investors, on the promise of generating incremental revenues from the tools, otherwise why bother buying them right? any sound investment would be made on the basis of being backed by a revenue plan and the easiest way to do that would be to say, in the next X years we can sell Y number of compilers for Z dollars and show a return on investment. Can you imagine an investor saying yes to “Lets by HI-TECH for $20M (I just made that number up) so we can refocus their efforts on Microchip parts only and then give these really great compilers and libraries away!”, any sensible investor or finance person would probably ask the question “why would we do that?” or “where is the return that justifies the investment”. But, was expanding revenue the *real* reason for Microchip buying HI-TECH or was there an undercurrent of need to have the quality the HI-TECH compilers offered over the Microchip Compilers, it was pretty clear that Microchip themselves were way behind – but that storyline would not go down too well with investors, imagine suggesting “we need to buy HI-TECH because they are way ahead of us and we cannot compete”, and anyone looking at that from a financial point of view would probably not understand why having the tools was important without some financial rationale that shows on paper that an investment would yield a return.

Maybe Microchip bought HI-TECH as a strategic move to provide better tools for their parts but I am making the assumption there must have been some ROI commitment internally – why? because Microchip do have a very clear commercial strategy around their tools, they provide free compilers but they are crippled generating unoptimised code, in some cases the code generated has junk inserted, the optimised version simply removes this junk! I have also read somewhere that you can hack the setting to use different command-line options to re-optimise the produced code even on the free version because at the end of the day its just GCC behind the scenes. However, doing this may well revoke your licences right to use their libraries.

So then, are Microchip in the tools business? Absolutely not. In a letter from Microchip to its customers after the acquisition of HI-TECH [link] they stated that “we will focus our energies exclusively on Microchip related products” which meant dropping future development for tools for other non-Microchip parts that HI-TECH used to also focus on. As an independent provider HI-TECH could easily justify selling their tools for money, their value proposition was they provided compilers that were much better than the “below-par” compilers put out by Microchip, and being independent there is an implicit justification for them charging for the tools – and as a result the Microchip customers had an choice – they could buy the crappy compiler from Microchip or the could buy a far superior one from HI-TECH – it all makes perfect sense. You see, you could argue that HI-TECH only had market share in the first place because the Microchip tools were poor enough that there was a need for someone to fill a gap. Think about it, if Microchip had made the best tools from day one, then they would have had the market share and companies like HI-TECH would not have had a market opportunity – and as a result Microchip would not have been in the position where they felt compelled to buy HI-TECH in the first place to regain ground and possibly some credibility in the market. I would guess that Microchip’s early strategy included “let the partners/third parties make the tools, we will focus on silicon” which was probably OK at the time but the world moved on and suddenly compilers and tools became strategically important element to Microchip’s go-to-market execution.

OK, Microchip now own the HI-TECH compilers, so why should they not charge for them? HI-TECH did and customers after all were prepared to pay for them so why should Microchip now not charge for them? Well I think there is a very good reason – Microchip NEED to make tools to enable the EE community to use their parts in designs to ensure they get used in products that go to market. As a separate company, HI-TECH were competing with Microchips compilers, but now Microchip own the HI-TECH compilers so their is no competition and if we agree that Microchip *MUST* make compilers to support their parts, then they cannot really justify selling them in the same way as HI-TECH was able to as an independent company – this is especially true given the fact that Microchip decided to obsolete their own compilers that the HI-TECH ones previously competed with – no doubt they have done this in part at least to reduce the cost of (and perhaps reduced the team size needed in) maintaining two lots of code and most likely to provide their existing customers of the old compilers with a solution that solved those outstanding “old compiler” issues. So they end up adopting a model to give away limited free editions and sell the unrestricted versions to those customers that are willing to pay for them. On the face of it thats a reasonable strategy – but it alienates the very people they need to be passionate about their micro-controller products.

I have no idea what revenues Microchip derives from their compiler tools – I can speculate that their main revenue is from the sale of silicon and that probably makes the tools revenue look insignificant. Add to that fact the undesirable costs in time and effort in maintaining and administering the licences versions, dealing with those “my licence does not work” or “I have changed my network card and now the licence is invalid” or “I need to upgrade from this and downgrade from that” support questions and so on….this must be a drain on the company, the energy that must be going into making the compiler tools a commercial subsidiary must be distracting to the core business at the very least.

Microchip surely want as many people designing their parts into products as possible, but the model they have alienates individual developers and this matters because even on huge projects with big budgets the developers and engineers will have a lot of say in the BOM and preferred parts. Any good engineer is going to use parts that they know (and perhaps even Love) and any effective manager is going to go with the hearts and minds of their engineers, thats how you get the best out of your teams. The idea that big budget projects will not care about spending $1000 for a tool is flawed, they will care more than you think. For Microchip to charge for their compilers and libraries its just another barrier to entry – and that matters a lot.

So where is the evidence that open and free tools matter – well, lets have a look at Arduino – you cannot help but notice that the solution to almost every project that needs a micro-controller these days seems to be solved with an Arduino! and that platform has been built around Atmel parts, not Microchip parts. What happened here? With the Microchip parts you have much more choice and the on-board peripherals are generally broader in scope with more options and capabilities, and for the kinds of things that Arduino’s get used for, Microchip parts should have been a more obvious choice, but Atmel parts were used instead – why was that?

The success of the Arduino platform is undeniable – if you put Arduino in your latest development product name its pretty much a foregone conclusion that you are going to sell it – just look at the frenzy amongst the component distributors and the Chinese dev board makers who are all getting in on the Arduino act, and why is this? well the Arduino platform has made micro-controllers accessible to the masses, and I don’t mean made them easy to buy, I mean made them easy to use for people that would otherwise not be able to set up and use a complex development environment, toolset and language, and the Arduino designers also removed the need to have a special programmer/debugger tool, a simple USB port and a boot-loader means that with just a board and a USB cable and a simple development environment you are up and running which is really excellent. You are not going to do real-time data processing or high speed control systems with an Arduino because of its hardware abstraction but for many other things the Arduino is more than good enough, its only a matter of time before Arduino code and architectures start making it into commercial products if they have not already done so. There is no doubt that the success of the Arduino platform has had a positive impact on Atmel’s sales and revenues.

I think I was pretty close to the mark when I was thinking that because Atmel used an open toolchain based on the GCC compiler and open source libraries, when the team who developed the Arduino project started work on their Arduino programming language, having the toolchain open and accessible probably drove their adoption decision – that was pure speculation on my part and that was bugging me so I thought I would try to find out more.

Now this is the part where the product team, executives and the board at Microchip should pay very close attention. I made contact with David Cuartielles who is Assistant Professor at Malmo University in Sweden, but more relevant here is that he is one of the Co-founders of the original Arduino project. I wrote David and asked him…

“I am curious to know what drove the adoption of the Atmel micro controllers for the Arduino platform? I ask that in the context of knowing PIC micro controllers and wondering with the rich on-board peripherals of the PIC family which would have been useful in the Arduino platform why you chose Atmel devices.”

David was very gracious and responded within a couple of hours. He responded with the following statement:

“The decision was simple, despite the fact that -back in 2005- there was no Atmel chip with USB on board unlike the 18F family from Microchip that had native USB on through hole chips, the Atmel compiler was not only free, but open source, what allowed migrating it to all main operating systems at no expense. Cross-platform cross-compilation was key for us, much more than on board peripherals.”

So on that response, Microchip should pay very close attention. The 18F PDIP series Microcontroller with onboard USB was the obvious choice for the Arduino platform and had the tooling strategy been right the entire Arduino movement today could well have been powered by Microchip parts instead of Atmel parts – imagine what that would have done for Microchip’s silicon sales!!! The executive team at Microchip need to learn from this, the availability of tools and the enablement of your developer community matters – a lot, in fact a lot more than your commercial strategy around your tooling would suggests you might believe.

I also found this video of Bob Martin at Atmel stating pretty much the same thing.

So back to Microchip – here is a practical example of what I mean. In a project I am working on using a PIC32 I thought it would be nice to structure some of the code using C++, but I found that in order to use the C++ features of the free XC32 compiler I have to install a “free licence” which requires me to not only register my personal details on the Microchip web site but also to tie this request to the MAC address of my computer – so I am suspicious, there is only one purpose for developing a mechanism like this and thats to control access to certain functions for commercial reasons. I read on a thread in the Microchip forums that this is apparently to allow Microchip management to assess the demand for C++ so they can decide to put more resources into development of C++ features if the demand is there – a stock corporate response – and I for one don’t buy it. I would say its more likely that Microchip want to assess a commercial opportunity and collect contact information for the same reasons, perhaps even more likely for marketing to feed demand for a sales pipeline. Whats worse is after following all the instructions I am still getting compiler errors stating that my C++ licence has not been activated. Posting a request for help on the Microchip forum has now resolved this but it was painful, it should have just worked – way to go Microchip. Now because of the optimisation issues, I am now sitting here wondering if I should take the initiative and start looking at a Cortex M3 or and Atmel AVR32 – I wonder how many thoughts like this are invoked in Microchip customers/developers because of stupid tooling issues like this?

You do not need market research to know that for 32-bit Micro-controllers C++ is a must-have option in the competitive landscape – not having it leaves Microchip behind the curve again – this is not an extra PRO feature, it should be there from the off – what are you guys thinking! This position is made even worse by the fact that the XC32 toolchain is built broadly around GCC which is already a very good C++ compiler – why restrict access to this capability in your build tool. If Microchip wanted to know how many people want to make use of the C++ compiler all they need to do is ask the community, or perform a simple call-home on installation or even just apply common sense, all routes will lead to the same answer – none of which involve collecting peoples personal information for marketing purposes. The whole approach is retarded.

This also begs another question too – if Microchip are building their compilers around GCC which is an open source GPL project, how are Microchip justifying charging a licence fee for un-crippled versions of their compiler – the terms of the GPL require that Microchip make the source code available for the compilers and any derived works, so any crippling that is being added could simply be removed by downloading the source code and removing the crippling behaviour. It is clear however that Microchip make all the headers proprietary and non-sharable effectively closing out any competitor open source projects – thats a very carefully crafted closed source strategy that takes full advantage of open source initiatives such as GCC, not technically in breach of the GPL license terms but its a one-sided grab from the open source community and its not playing nice – bad Microchip…..

Late in the game, Microchip are trying to work their way into the Arduino customer base by supporting the chipKIT initiative. It is rumoured that the chipKIT initiative was actually started by Microchip to fight their way back into the Arduino space to take advantage of the buzz and demand for Arduino based tools – no evidence to back it up but seems likely. Microchip and Digilent have brought out a 32bit PIC32 based solution, two boards called UNO32 and Max32, both positioned as “a 32bit solution for the Arduino community” by Microchip, these are meant to be software and hardware compatible although there are the inevitable incompatibilities for both shields and software – oddly they are priced to be slightly cheaper than their Arduino counterparts – funny that 🙂

Here is and interview with Ian Lesnet at dangerousprototypes.com and the team at Microchip talking about the introduction of the Microchip based Arduino compatible solution.

There is also a great follow-up article with lots of community comment all basically saying the same thing.

http://dangerousprototypes.com/2011/08/30/editorial-our-friend-microchip-and-open-source/

Microchip have a real up hill battle in this space with the ARM Cortex M3 based Arduino Due bringing an *official* 32bit solution to the Arduino community. Despite having an alleged “open source” compiler for the chipKIT called the “chipKIT compiler” its still riddled with closed-source bits and despite the UNO32 and MAX32 heavily advertising features like Ethernet and USB (which Microchip are known for great hardware and software implementations) these are only available on the UNO32 and MAX32 platforms if you revert back to Microchip’s proprietary tools and libraries – so the advertised benefits and the actual benefits to the Arduino community are different – and thats smelly too….

OK, so I am nearing the end of my rant and I am clearly complaining about the crippling of Microchip provided compilers, but I genuinely believe that Microchip could and should do better and for some reason, perhaps there is a little brand loyalty, I actually care, I like the company and the parts and the tools they make.

One of my own pet hates in business is to listen to someone rant on about how bad something is without having any suggestions for improvement, so for what its worth, if I were in charge of product strategy at Microchip I would want to do the following: –

  • I would hand the compilers over to the team or the person in charge that built the MPLAB-X IDE and would have *ALL* compilers pre-configured and installed with the IDE right out of the box. This would remove the need for users to set up individual compilers and settings. Note to Microchip: IDE stands for Integrated Development ENVIRONMENT, and any development ENVIRONMENT is incomplete in the absence of a compiler
  • I would remove all crippling features from all compilers so that all developers have access to build great software for projects based on Microchip parts
  • I would charge for Priority Support, probably at comparable rates that I currently charge for the PRO editions of the compilers – this way those companies with big budgets can pay for the support they need and get additional value from Microchip tools, while Microchip can derive its desired PRO level revenue stream without crippling its developer community.
  • I would provide all source code to all libraries, this is absolutely a must for environments developing critical applications for Medical, Defence and other systems that require full audit and code review capability. By not doing so you are restricting potential market adoption.
  • I would stop considering the compilers as a product revenue stream, I would move the development of them to a “cost of sale” line on the P&L, set a budget that would keep you ahead of the curve and put them under the broader marketing or sales support banner – they are there to help sell silicon – good tools will create competitive advantage – I would have the tools developers move completely away from focusing on commercial issues and get them 100% focused on making the tools better than anything else out there.
  • I would use my new found open strategy for tooling and both contribute to, and fight for my share of the now huge Arduino market. The chipKIT initiative is a start but its very hard to make progress unless the tool and library strategy is addressed

Of course this is all my opinion with speculation and assumptions thrown in, but there is some real evidence too. – I felt strongly enough about it to put this blog post together, I really like Microchip parts and I can even live with the stupid strategy they seem to be pursuing with their tools but I can’t help feeling I would like to see Microchip doing better and taking charge in a market that they seem be losing grip on – there was a time a few years ago where programming a Micro-controller and PIC were synonymous – not any more, it would seem that Arduino now has that. All of that said, I am not saying that I do not want to see the Arduino team and product to continue to prosper, I do, the founders and supporters of this initiative, as well as Atmel have all done an amazing job at demystifying embedded electronics and fuelling the maker revolution, a superb demonstration of how a great strategy can change the world.

If I have any facts (and I said facts, not opinion) wrong I would welcome being corrected – but please as a reminder, I will ignore any comments relating to Atmel is better than PIC is better than MPS430 etc…that was not the goal of this article.

Please leave your comments on the article

Build a 10MHz Rubidium Frequency Standard and Signal Distribution Amp for my Lab

Having gotten myself a Rubidium Frequency Standard I found that the unit on its own is not that useful, its really just a component and needs really a supporting PSU and a decent enclosure to make it useful. I was searching around for something suitable when I was directed to a robust quality unit being sold on e-bay for just £20 with an unbelievable level of re-usable content and turned out to be an almost perfect solution to making the Rubidium Standard a useful Lab item. Rarely does such a fine marriage of junk bits come together to make something really useful?

I had a lot to cover, the whole thing was built in an afternoon and as a result, this is a long video at 1 hour 16 mins so be prepared…

Video of the project build. 1hr 16mi

The PIC Micro-controller – PIC12F675
The original plan was to use the PIC for three functions, the first was to make the power LED flash while the RFS was warming up and on solid when locked. The second was to generate a 1 PPS signal from the 10Mhz signal and the third was to generate a PWM signal to control the fan speed. As it turns out the RFS already has a 1 PPS output on Pin 6 of the DB9 connector so there was no need for this. It also transpired that the only fan I had to hand was a three wire fixed speed fan, so I also did not need the PWM signal, this left me with just the power LED to deal with which is what the PIC ended up controlling. Here is the schematic for the PIC and the source code.

And the compiled HEX file if you want to just program the chip without compiling

The Video Amp – Extron ADA 6 300MX HV
The video amp unit I used in this hack is made by Extron and the model number (on the front panel) is ADA 6 300MX HV. When I communicated with the seller, he said he had about 30 of them, so if this is useful to you and you want to make your own I would go grab yourself one before they are gone. The basic outline schematic for an input channel is here:

The video op amp chip used in this unit is a CLC409, the Texas Instruments CLC409 Data Sheet data sheet is attached to this article.

The heat sink I have ordered can be found on e-bay, search for “150x25x60mm Aluminum Heat Sink for LED”.

The switch mode PSU I used can also be found on e-bay, search for “Enclosed Power Supply SMPS,15V,2.4A,36W, it is made by TDK-Lambda and the part number is LS35-15”

See you next time.