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Blog

A fictional story in square and green

Saar Drimer

So I walked down the endless aisles of a large trade-show full of companies selling electronic components. The company I work for sent me here. I'm wading past dozens of them seeking something that catches my eye. They all sell basically the same stuff but with a slight twist that's promoted to 'game-changing' by marketing. Slightly less power here, slightly lower cost at 1M+ units there, slightly longer detection range in the rain, or slightly more robust on Tuesdays. Stripping down the flashy branding everything pretty much looked the same. Not to make this a waste of time and my employer's money, I decided to talk to a few of them. In the process I picked up a couple of evaluation kits. They were the typical 'square green and boring' fare and certainly not something I'd tweet a picture of or show the gang back at the office. It's as if they didn't care that they look and feel like they came from the 90s. Well, I'm kind of used to that; a lot of stuff I use in engineering looks this way. Anyway, there's a remote possibility that these eval boards become useful, but they're drawer-filler material and everyone knows it.

Months later I got an assignment and while looking for an evaluation kit for a chip, I remembered that I have one in my drawer! That drawer is full of these poor neglected evaluation and development kits that I've never touched. I feel sorry for them sometimes. I know that it's strange to feeling sorry for electronics, but there you go. That eval board had the previous generation IC on it, which is mildly annoying. I like having the latest stuff but to save the company some money I decided to try and make it work.

It came with a USB stick that miraculously survived the journey, and even more of a miracle is the fact that it's still next to the board! Damn. Windows software and I run Ubuntu. ("What if the stuff on this stick is malware? That could be a great vector to infect my machine. At least it's not a WindowsXP CD any longer because my laptop doesn't even have a drive for that.", I remember muttering to myself.) As the ritual goes I then spent two hours setting up a Windows virtual machine and fought it to recognise the USB1.1 device through the USB3 host port. What made it work eventually was plugging it through a USB2 hub. Go figure. I tamed the machine but it didn't feel like a victory at all.

I fired up the software. It asked for my contact details so that it can email me an activation code. Craaaap! Those pesky market-y types even made sure that it won't accept @mailinator.com addresses. "Why should I need to give them my details to evaluate their product?! It doesn't make any sense!", I shouted internally. Then I calmed down. I got the activation code. I cursed at the two marketing emails. I activated the software. The relationship with this vendor hasn't started too well. They're abusing my good will from the get-go.

Yup. The software couldn't talk to the evaluation board as it needed some drivers that are bundled with the manufacturer's custom IDE. The firmware also needs to be updated otherwise the thing won't work. I spent another couple of hours downloading and installing the IDE. While I waited I realised that this 'kit' felt more like a punishment than a gift and I started regretting my decisions at the show, much like what I imaging a Brexit voter feels with the rising cost of Marmite.

OK. It worked. All of this so I could move my hand in front of the thing and see numbers change on my screen. I guess that all of that was worth it. Well, hell, I'm actually pretty sure that it wasn't. I couldn't conveniently use this board because idiotically the sensor was in the centre of the board instead of a protruding edge where it might be useful for evaluation under other conditions. The I2C pins weren't conveniently exposed and I completely lost the motivation to go to the soldering station and hack on it. This shit should work out of the box! I ended up buying a £249 'development' kit from a competitor that was only slightly better. That shows me for trying to save money.

Now, if only they exposed the I2C pins through a header, put the IC somewhere sensible, and made some drivers available for Arduino or whatever, I could have just used it straight-away. But, no, they have to always create this 'walled favela' around their products. The lock-in is strong with this industry, you know. I'm starting to be fed up with 'them' not thinking about these sort of things. Next time I'm going to try to give 'my' business to a company that gives me a good experience — like decent datasheets, complete footprints and usable boards! — even if their devices are a bit more expensive. Unit cost is not all that should matter... the design experience should too.