Every year was going to be ‘the year of Linux on the desktop’, until many began to wonder when the FOSS (free and open source software) breakthrough would come. As we watched for signs of hope in netbook sales, Drupal sites and partly-FOSS Android phones, a revolution was taking place all around, in the physical world but not entirely away from the internet.
Enter, the Arduino: a low-cost, open source, tiny hardware board for connecting the real world to your computer, and/or to the whole internet. What can be done with it? Everything. The limit is the imagination, and as you’ll see from a few of the example creations we review here, imaginative use is the norm.
Just as GNU/Linux software spread because everyone owned it, and could improve it, giving people the confidence to get involved, so with open hardware. The reference designs for Arduino are distributed under a Creative Commons licence (the software is GPL/LGPL, naturally), and the Italian company behind the boards, Smart Projects, is keen to welcome new contributors and variants. Boards are manufactured in different formats, sold all over the world, and the web is full of different designs if you want to build one yourself, whatever your skill level.
Numbers of boards in use are estimated in the hundreds of thousands, though like Linux distros, the freely copiable nature makes an accurate count difficult. What’s not difficult to see is the genuinely open nature of the online communities, and hackspace meetings, around Arduino projects. This has led to a cornucopia of wonderful projects from diverse artistic and creative people – but first, some history…
Those with long memories of geekery and the free software movement will know of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) – a group of MIT students who got together and played with trains. Some liked the modelling aspect, but the legendary Signals and Power Subcommittee implemented, in the 1950s and 1960s, a semi-automatic control system of great digital cunning, before acquiring a PDP-11 in 1970. TMRC members embodied early hacker culture, giving it much of its current vocabulary and terms of reference, and many became leading lights in DEC and other early computer companies, but this hacker culture fitted the American stereotype of the nerd, the socially awkward genius who could never get the girl (TMRC was, inevitably, an all-male club).
The hacker and free software movement has always suffered from an image problem – such that as female participation in professional IT has declined from 50% to 20% in the last 50 years, some free software projects have a derisory 1% female participation. It’s pathetic, boys, really – but there are signs of hope.
There’s more on page two…