Arduino: Stop Helping!

Jul 1, 2012

When I was a youngster, I had a pocket knife I carried with me everywhere. It had two blades, one large and the other small. One day while playing mumbly-peg, flipping my knife into a board, I chipped the point off. No matter, I found that the blade had become a screwdriver in addition to being a knife. For things that required a pointy end, well, there was the smaller blade. On through life I carried my little knife, getting tons of use from it.

One day while I was fishing, I happened to drop my knife overboard. The last time I saw the knife, it was slowly tumbling into the depths of Long Island Sound where I’m sure it sits, rusting, today. I was heartbroken at the loss of my old friend. My father decided to buy me a new knife for my birthday and I found myself the owner of a brand new Swiss Army knife.

It had twin knife blades, a saw, an awl, a corkscrew, scissors, can opener, flat and phillips screwdrivers; it even had a toothpick made of bone. It was an amazing little knife and I hated it. There were so many blades that it was difficult to get them open, and often I ended up pulling on the wrong blade. The knife was bulky and didn’t fit the hand comfortably. Worse yet, I managed to pinch and poke myself trying to get at the various blades, at times drawing blood.

Somewhere an engineer looked at the ubiquitous pocket knife and said “This needs to be more” and proceeded to turn it into a multi-tool. Of course, the minute it was a multi-tool it was no longer a knife. I have a feeling that the Leatherman multi-tool was invented because the Swiss army knife went too damn far at trying to be all things to all people. The Swiss needed to stick to clocks and leave the world of cutlery behind.

And now here comes the Arduino Leonardo. For those who don’t know Arduino, its a small little board that incorporates a microcontroller with a few simple tricks like analog to digital conversion. It was a tiny embedded computer that was pretty easy to use. It had its own software development program (IDE) that allowed non-programmers to write programs to make the simple little board do all sorts of wonderful things. The Arduino allowed me to build a whole array of robots and robotic devices without really knowing my ass from a tea kettle. With the Arduino I made autopilots for R/C airplanes, autonomous robots that carried out simple tasks, and little autonomous devices like the Cat Annoyer that roamed the house looking for our pets so it could sit next to them. If they moved, it would follow. Of course, I used the Arduino for more utilitarian tasks: controlling lights, locking and unlocking doors remotely, and even got artistic using it to control LED lamp sequencing for artistic projects. It was a simple and straight-forward component that opened up a whole world of recreational and utilitarian prospects.

The Arduino is Italian by descent, but it may as well have been Swiss. The folks that hold the reigns to its design are getting a case of need to “improve” the Arduino. Much to my dismay, the Arduino is becomming the Italian Army knife of the electronics world. Dammit.

The Arduino has been coming out with succeeding models which, chipping away a piece at a time, are relinquishing the concept of simplicity for complexity. The most recent offering, the Leonardo, now has users picking out analog or digital I/O pins from clusters of other pins which already have assigned purpose, and requiring on-board soldering to achieve even more pins. The new Leonardo requires special USB drivers for use, and new libraries to support its functions. It turned that corner and in doing so, left simplicity behind in favor of enhanced utility. But it did so needlessly. The world needs the Leonardo like like an opossum needs a Cuisinart.

Need more pins? Get an Arduino Mega. Need more pins in a tiny footprint? Get the Seed Studio Mega –which, by the way is cheaper and more capable than the Leonardo. Plus, you don’t need to hold your tongue just right in order to get at its pins and functions. Not only that, it is pin compatible with the ‘regular’ Arduino –which is what I call the Duemilanove– so all of the available Arduino ‘shield’ boards plug right up without fear of mishaps.

There are lots of versions of the simple Arduino –some being more simple (and tiny) than others. But all the way through, they use the same tools and software as the ‘regular’ Arduino family, from the postage stamp size Pro Mini up to the Mega.

The Leonardo makes the first leap away from that across the board compatibility and simplicity. In an attempt to become all things to all people, it has been making Arduino users need greater skill levels to play along. And in doing so ends up rejecting audience. Let me explain. My first attempts at embedded computing involved the Stamp microcontroller. But ti was so complex and confusing to me, that I discarded the hobby ideas I had. It just required too much. Imagine my glee when I discover the Arduino, all ready to do my bidding with tons of standardized plug in components/shields and a simple easy to learn program development system. I was turning out robots at about one a week, finally getting the opportunity to breathe life into my ideas.

So I don’t like the new direction that the Arduino team is taking. If they want to simplify the board some more, great. If they want to reduce its size using surface mount components, fine. If they want to add on capabilities then that’s okay too –so long as those changes don’t affect or change the basics. Do not require new libraries for programming, do not require special drivers for the Windows PCs used to program them. Don’t alter the footprint so that shields and the like can’t be used or need to be modified.

The Arduino was like using Tinker Toys. One could plug this into that, that into this, and have some life form scurrying across the floor in no time. But the new directions being applauded up the red carpet of public release do not excite me. They worry me.

Let them make a new product line so that those who live, eat and breathe electronics and programming can confuse themselves until the heat death of the universe. But when it comes to the ubiquitous little Arduino LEAVE BRITTANY ALONE!



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