The secret is to bang the rocks together

Arduino is a building block for the world to come.

“We’ll be saying a big hello to all intelligent lifeforms everywhere and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys.” — “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Douglas Adams

Every so often a piece of technology can become a lever that lets people move the world, just a little bit. The Arduino is one of those levers.

It started off as a project to give artists access to embedded micro-processors for interaction design projects, but I think it’s going to end up in a museum as one of the building blocks of the modern world. It allows rapid, cheap, prototyping for embedded systems. It turns what used to be fairly tough hardware problems into simpler software problems.

The Arduino UNO
The Arduino UNO.

The Arduino, and the open hardware movement that has grown up with it, and at least to certain extent around it, is enabling a generation of high-tech tinkerers both to break the seals on proprietary technology, and prototype new ideas with fairly minimal hardware knowledge. This maker renaissance has led to an interesting growth in innovation. People aren’t just having ideas, they’re doing something with them.

Goodbye desktop

The underlying trend is clear. The general purpose computer is a dead end. Most people just want gadgets that work, and that do the things they want them to do. They never really wanted computers. They wanted what computers could do for them.

While general purpose computers will live on, like the horse after the arrival of the automobile, these systems will be relegated to two small niches. Those of us that build the embedded systems people are using elsewhere will still have a need for general purpose computers, as will those who can’t resist tinkering. But that’s the extent of it. Nobody else will need them. Quite frankly, nobody else will want them.

The humble Arduino is the start of that. The board has multiple-form factors, but a single-programming interface. Sizes range from the “standard” palm of your hand for prototyping, down to the size of your thumb for the almost-professional almost-products now starting to come out of the maker renaissance. Arduino, and its relatives, will be part of everything from wearable versions like the Lilypad, sized and customized to be stitched into clothing, to mobile phone hardware accessories, to specially built boards launched into space on the new generation of nano-satellites built on a shoe-string budget by hobbyists.

Every interesting hardware prototype to come along seems to boast that it is Arduino-compatible, or just plain built on top of an Arduino. It’s everywhere.

Maker Faire Bay Area will be held May 21-22 in San Mateo, Calif. Event details, exhibitor profiles, and ticket information can be found at the Maker Faire site.

Things are still open. They’re just different things.

There has been a great deal of fear-mongering about the demise of the general purpose computer and the emergence of a new generation of consumption devices as more-or-less closed platforms. When the iPad made its debut, Cory Doctorow argued that closed platforms send the wrong signal:

Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

I’m philosophical about the passing of the computer. What we’re seeing here is a transition from one model of computing to another. We’ve seen that before and there were similar outcries for the death of the mainframe, as there has been for the death of the desktop. There is plenty of room for closed platforms, but the underlying trend is toward more openness, not less. It’s just the things that are open and the things that are closed are changing. The skills needed to work with the technology are changing as well.

What the Arduino and the open hardware movement have done is made hard things easy, and impossible things merely hard. Before now, getting to the prototype stage for a hardware project was hard, at least for most people, and going beyond a crude prototype was impossible for many. Now it’s the next big thing.


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  • Your quote: “We’ve seen that before and there were similar outcries for the death of the mainframe, as there has been for the death of the desktop.”

    – raised my interest. Was there really such an outcry in the past? That was before my time, and I am unaware of such an outcry. Could you point me to some reference?

  • Lucian Armasu

    @Zach IBM was in big trouble when mini-computer(the next computing paradigm then) and DEC (market leader) took off. DEC later had the same problem when PC’s took off.

    With every new computing paradigm, the leaders usually change because they don’t believe that the new computing paradigm (they don’t believe it is at the time) will become too popular, and by the time they start worrying about it, there’s a new leader leading a new industry, and they are left behind.

  • Kathy sierra

    This feels like one of those rare and precious examples of a tech that — no matter now grand the claims (and you’re making some pretty big-ass claims) — will exceed all possible expectations. Not so much because of *what* Arduino enables, but *who*.


  • What I really want to see from this is not one device, but a series that talk together. Start with a home weather station that monitors the outside temperature, and opens the windows while your at work (closing them if it starts to rain). An HVAC unit with dehumidifier that works with this system as well so as to not “cool the whole neighborhood.

  • Kevin Groce


    If you want it make it happen. Do it. All you need is out here. You just need to come get it and use it.

  • From the text: “The Arduino … is enabling a generation of high-tech tinkerers both to break the seals on proprietary technology…”

    Nothing about the Arduino is proprietary, and the Arduino can be easily used to develop proprietary technology. The Arduino isn’t enabling people to do anything that was only previously possible using closed technology; it is only making micro-controller prototyping a bit faster and easier.

    From the text: “and prototype new ideas with fairly minimal hardware knowledge.”

    If all you want to do is assemble Arduino project from pre-written recipes that spin motors an blink LEDs then only minimal hardware is needed. But the first time you want to build you own prototype of some gadget, you will quickly discover how necessary a broad understanding of analog and digital electronics is to your success.

    Finally, your statements about the “unwantedness” and death of general-purpose computers are ludicrous. History has shown that the most useful gadgets eventually coalesce into a single, general-purpose device. Cell phone are the latest example. A few years ago, we all had separate devices in out pocket with our cell phones. Now cell phones are replacing laptops because they have been hybridized with other devices to provide functionality the level of general-purpose computers.

  • “What we’re seeing here is a transition from one model of computing to another. We’ve seen that before and there were similar outcries for the death of the mainframe, as there has been for the death of the desktop.”

    I wasn’t aware the mainframe “died” – when did IBM stop selling them? They still list themon their website:

  • H. Acker
  • AnthonyA

    @Zach: During the late 1980s and into the 1990s, there was a feeling amongst many computer hobbyists that these new “desktop microcomputers” were going to replace mainframes someday. Then, during the late 1990s, and early 2000s, cluster computer came to the forefront, and the cry “mainframes are dead” went up again.

    Those in the business of building systems that handled very large datasets recognized that mainframes have specialized advantages that desktop computers haven’t yet matched, and adopted techniques from the microcomputer field ( which, often as not, had been developed for mainframes decades before, like multi-core ) and thus, mainframe computers continue to be very handy for some applications, and are still available from a smaller number of vendors than back prior to the 1980s.