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Interview with Massimo Banzi,
co-founder of Arduino
by Arsenio Spadoni
During the NIDays2011, we met Massimo Banzi, who explained us the deep meaning of the Arduino project and his plans for the future, especially in the field of educational robotics.
When I was told that one of the NIDays 2011 – the annual Technology Forum on Systems’ Graphic Design by National Instruments recently held in Milan – keynotes was going to be held by Massimo Banzi, at first I thought: “what is one of the gurus of open source doing in an event like this?” This year (but not only) brochure for the presentation of the event gave me the answer, since its main theme was the need to invent and innovate.
And who but an innovator as Massimo Banzi could provide a personal response to this need?
An answer that also National Instruments gave by showcasing at the exhibition its own products as well as applications submitted by numerous technology partners.
During his speech, Banzi introduced the innovative concept of open source hardware showing dozens of applications built with the Arduino platform, literally conquering the audience.
Before his speech, I had the opportunity to interview Massimo Banzi. I asked him a number of questions speaking also on behalf of many of our readers.
In these days, Phillip Torrone wrote on “Make” an editorial entitled “Why the Arduino Won and Why It’s Here to Stay” sparking a lively debate on various websites about the reasons for Arduino’s success. We just want to know your opinion: Has Arduino really “won”? And if so, what are the main reasons of this success?
“I believe Arduino has not won anything, I think there is nothing to win; instead, I believe in the natural path all technologies follow, which is a continuous approach to the needs of men. I can imagine that 40, 50 or 60 years ago, the idea that an ordinary person could program a computer was something inconceivable, but now even my accountant uses Excel macros while forty years ago he would have had to ask IBM for assistance, thus involving extremely high costs. In the world of technology there is a natural path towards this direction while, very often, in the world of a more, let’s say “classic” technology, the one made of “classic” engineers, there is some resistance to propose tools that are accessible for the regular human being. This, perhaps, just to maintain a sort of golden aura, to make others feel the value of their wisdom when, to tell the truth, the basic concepts are quite simple. On the other hand it is clear that a month spent to make applications with Arduino cannot make an electronic engineer out of a layman, as it is not true that it takes five years of electronic engineering to be able to make projects, and interesting ones too. I attended the ITIS (Italian technical and industrial high school) and since those times we already produced any kind of thing, and certainly none of us was a genius …
According to me, the really “winning” thing is the concept of simplifying technology: if we take a piece of technology considered, rightly or wrongly, complex, and we make it simple by working not on the technology in itself but on the experience that comes from using it, then everything gets simpler and we discover new possibilities that were not there before. Arduino has allowed a lot of people to approach microcontroller programming in a simple way, people who otherwise would have never thought of doing anything like that. ”
What do you consider the main practical advantages of this opening?
“In a traditional model, to put an idea into practice or to solve a problem, for example, if I were a chicken farmer and I could think of an idea to increase the efficiency or the safety of my farm, I should consult an engineer to produce what I have in mind and to make what I need. With Arduino, instead, even those who know about chickens but not about electronics and programming are able to achieve, by themselves and in a very short time, the kludge they need, that is to solve their practical problem. All this is about moving technology towards what we might call a domain expert. In the end, the one who raises chickens is certainly much more expert about chickens than an engineer or any other strange who certainly knows nothing about them. This allows for innovation to grow from its base, giving the domain expert in different fields the means to develop their own applications by themselves, to put their ideas into practice. In the world of design I come from, things like this take place: when a designer talks with the engineers that must produce the more technological aspects of the products demanding certain functions, he often hears something like “you must be stupid, get lost…”. Instead, only in a few cases can the designer have the control over technology. One of them is Apple: when the person in charge decides that, for instance, the antenna has to be made in a certain way, engineers get mad at first, but then, in the end, they make the antenna just as the boss wanted and, of course, the antenna works perfectly well, even if in the making they did not use any classical solution.”
We are at the annual meeting of users of National Instruments systems so this is kind of a mandatory question: it is possible – in you view – to compare the support that the NI graphical programming has been offering for years to lots technicians and engineers with the ease of use that Arduino platform offers to a much wider audience, especially to designers, hobbyists, artists and students who want to achieve quickly and with limited skills in electronics and information their own prototypes?
“In both cases these are tools that try to make technology more accessible. I, for one, see it with my students who are designers and artists: they do not want to do any classical programming. For this reason in the world of art there are a number of platforms that are conceptually similar to LabVIEW, very successful ones and that allow you to graphically set up your projects, especially when it comes to people getting started. A graphic programming system certainly brings that kind of technology to an audience that maybe does not want to program in C.
In our case, we have tried to take C and make it simple, by removing all those parts that are frightening, by removing all the software buttons, by looking for absolute simplicity. Also in the world of education where it’s the kids who use these tools, the graphic programming languages are of great importance; we can see this with the most famous one, the MIT’s Scratch language. With this language teachers were able to make the youngest do things that probably wouldn’t have been able to do with Logo, the previously used language. The same applies to LabVIEW that is “inside” the LEGO and with which many kids program their robots without even knowing they are doing so… ”
It’s been a long time since we started hearing about educational robotics in Italian schools, even in elementary and secondary schools. Right here at NIDays there is an ongoing seminar on the subject since LabVIEW is used to program one of the first programmable robots available, the LEGO NXT. Currently many people are proposing the introduction of Arduino as an innovative didactic support in several courses, from secondary school to prep, and not just in electronics and computer courses. Maybe together with courses in robotics. Do you think such a thing could ever happen in our country?
“This is already done in Italy, no matter the educational system and behind the educational system. In our case, and almost a year ago, we started such a project, starting from Piedmont, involving high school teachers to whom we gave a three-day course on the Arduino platform and on the Processing programming language, a “twin” of Arduino. Then we showed them how to make small robots and stuff with these tools and some used spare parts; so far we have trained about seventy teachers who mainly work in technical schools, also trying to make them understand that the tools are there, that it is possible to make all kids have a kit. The results were almost immediate, for instance during an evening course of a ITIS school, in Ivrea, a student built a “solar panel control via web”, another one developed a wireless sensor network: all things were made in within a fairly short course in electronics. I think that it will all happen this way, intelligent teachers will take these ideas into their classrooms … ”
Not so institutionalized, then? Maybe at their expense …
“In our case teachers brought their own very inexpensive Arduino board.
From this point of view we are very specialized in all these things that happen grassroots, bottom up, as they say … I believe that if one day I decided to go as far as to explain these concepts to Gelmini (Italian Ministry of Education) I would waste a lot of energy; I’d rather convince people… Another successful, though unfortunate, model in Italy is to copy foreign success: I am sure that if one of the projects we are pursuing in Spain or Mexico or the United States or Sweden will produce something very beautiful, then Italians might say “we have to do it too, because the Americans or the Spanish did it”, however committing themselves to be the first to do something of the kind in our country doesn’t seem to be logical for Italian people.”
… and all this despite Arduino is an Italian product, with the logo of our peninsula on the base and a very clear “Made in Italy” phrase on it. In this regard: to what extent have these elements contributed to the success of this platform abroad?
“Pretty much, it is a classic branding issue. Since Arduino is open source in both the hardware and the software it that has the same problem fashion brands have… For example, the design of the sweater that I wear is not protectable by any copyright, but if I fill it with logos it becomes a protectable trademark instead. There you go, in a way we behave just as a fashion company. Something that is certainly important to the brand but we are also trying to offer that it is better designed, a bit nicer, and that also takes advantage of this idea of Italy we really like. From this point of view, we also tried producing the boards in Korea, for the Asian market, but Koreans told us they didn’t want them, they wanted the ones made in Italy: give these ones to someone else, they said. And, just like in the fashion field, some people understand this message, they want to help the project and buy the original product because it is Made in Italy, but then you have other people, the ones who always buy the cheapest stuff and buy the Chinese clone. This behavior also applies to some Italians who live just a mile away from the Arduino factory and do not understand that if they keep on buying the Chinese clone on eBay they just save two euros, which doesn’t make much sense, especially since many clones are not so good. Even one of the teachers attended our classes with a clone of Arduino: and it was so ugly, so very ugly… Anyway, the fact that Arduino is Made in Italy has certainly contributed to its success. ”
What contribution could the Arduino platform possibly give to the work of engineers and technicians who use National Instruments products on a daily basis?
“On the various forums on Arduino you can see that there are many people who use LabVIEW with Arduino, for example, there is a boy, Alessandro Ricco, who connected Facebook with Arduino using LabVIEW. Arduino definitely does not even think about sampling at 20 gigabits, it wouldn’t be able to, and neither it is its job. And mainly our measures are not certified. However, we need to say that as an entry-level product or as a system able to make people understand how the acquisition techniques work, it can be useful. We see this in the projects we do in developing countries where, using Arduino, they build equivalent instruments, obviously not so precise, but able to solve many problems. For example, if you work in a poor area of Brazil, your small company has no money to buy more precise equipment, or you have to make a probe all by yourself… From this point of view it is a way to make people be involved, to bring them closer to technology: it is clear that then, when you begin to do things seriously, you can no longer use Arduino but maybe people start to think about the instruments of National Instruments … In the meantime, many people, students, etc., have solved their measurement problems.”
How do you see the evolution of Arduino, what fields will you mostly focus on in the future?
“Last year we started focusing on the educational market, willing to produce a lot of products intended for preps, secondary and elementary schools and a number of projects around the world: there’s a group of guys from the Bronx that make little robots, we made workshops in Mexico, obviously trying to make a little robot in the cheapest possible way …
On the other hand, we have worked and we are still trying to work on more powerful platforms: we’re preparing a series of projects (still unavailable to the public) to see if it’s possible to use the logic Arduino uses to simplify the approach to certain platforms and transfer it to something much more powerful.
The first thing that comes to my mind concerns Linux, which I use normally and that I really like but, for example, my students would never use because they think it is too complicated, however if we could apply the logic of Arduino for Linux programming we could give these people access to Linux platforms, which are very powerful and present high level features.
Then, and always on the educational area, there’s the issue of visual languages: we are working with a group of kids on a kind of LabVIEW, but much simpler, all done in html and runs on a browser called Modkit. We are working with Modkit to allow also the user who knows nothing about anything to be able to start working… Modkit is a language similar to MIT’s Scratch, some very simple graphic with little bricks that interlock, thus allowing, even beginners, to make their first projects. Another advantage is that Modkit is an online platform, you don’t have not install anything, which is also very important, as for those who own a Mac and can start working with Arduino after just 15 minutes because there is no driver to install …
In short, we are working on these things: we are trying to increase the power of the platforms and trying to figure out what to do for the educational market. ”
In the software and in operating systems open source has been well established for some time. You that were among the first ones to propose an open source project even for hardware, which do you believe will be the future of open source in this area, that is for the hardware? I know this is a million-dollar question…
“I think there is great future, especially in the area of platforms; in other applications, however, for instance to produce a TV set, it makes little sense.
An open source platform can certainly be a useful tool, for example, for groups of small businesses; 4 or 5 companies that carry out the development of a single platform which they will then use to make different products. A sort of group research even more valid in countries like Italy, where there are thousands of micro companies, and where everyone usually carries on his projects in an autonomous, closed way.
According to me, it makes sense to put together in some way the efforts of R&D in some areas, because then everyone will benefit. One of the nice things about open source software is that if I take Linux and I want to know, for example, how the driver of a certain video card works, I download the source, get into the kernel, and understand how it works, so the next time I do the driver.
The same happens with Arduino: I can see the electric diagram, I have it available in CAD format (we use a CAD system that is free up to a certain size), something that for a technician or an engineer has an important educational value since it lets you go into detail of everything, you can know how a certain piece of software or hardware is done, you can modify it, you can do it yourself from scratch. Personally, I’ve learned electronics by reading Nuova Elettronica, when I went to the ITIS I already knew a lot of things … in the end the method is always the same one: you see what others do, then you learn. ”
In May last year, at the Maker Fair in San Mateo, California, I was able to witness how Arduino has contributed to the growth of new groups of American DIYs, especially those related to more advanced technologies. Do you think in our country Arduino could be the driving force behind a new generation of DIYs, geeks and hackers?
“Italy currently stands for only the 5% of the market for Arduino, compared to the 50% the U.S. represents, where the success of our platform is based on very strong communities, people who work actively and earnestly together. In our country, I often hear people say: “This guy who made the open source is an idiot … let’s use what we can and then run away.” It is certainly not a good way of working as a community, so I do not know … “