2.1 Research context: the case of Arduino

Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It’s intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments[1]”. That is what is stated on the Arduino website, highlighting that their goal is to build a massive community of users that employ Arduino in their pieces of work.

There is little doubt that Arduino is the main actor in the OSH ecosystem:  communities of users recognize the predominance of Arduino, and the relevance of being a “social hardware”.

Below the origin of Arduino will be described, underlying the key elements of its success, what the Arduino audience is and what they do with it.

1.1.1.              The story

OSH has some similarities with OSS in its origin. Linux, the most important OSS example, started from users’ dissatisfaction of working with a closed and expensive Operating System. This is similar to what happened with Arduino. In 2005 Massimo Banzi was a teacher at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea[2] (IDII) in Italy where he received frequent complaints from his students that could not find an inexpensive, powerful microcontroller to drive their arty robotic projects.

The needs of his students led Banzi to discuss the problem with David Cuartielles, a Spanish microchip engineer who was a visiting researcher at the school, and thanks to the help of the Danish student David Mellis, the three were able to create the board and the programming language in five days. That is how Arduino, a simple microcontroller platform[3] was created and designed with the aim to introduce non-hardware and non-software types to embedded devices and give them opportunities to create interaction designs.

The name that the co-founders assigned was pretty random: “while we were manufacturing the first boards, we realized we needed a name…so I told David: let’s call it like the bar Arduino[4]…we can always change that” said Massimo Banzi.

Subsequently, the Arduino team[5] decided to put the schematics online, freely available to anyone, in order to support people with the same issues they had had, and to spread over the concept of OS with the first massive example of OSH where essentially:

  • the interface to the hardware is explicitly made public, so the hardware can be used freely;
  • the design of the hardware is made public, therefore users can implement and learn from it;
  • the tools used to create the design are free, thus others can develop and improve the design.

Hence, the Arduino board was conceived as a piece of OSH, which anyone is free to use and modify.

As a final remark, from the story clearly emerges that Arduino itself is also a successful case of User Entrepreneurship: Arduino was created in response to a need occurred in a problem solving context, later translated in a business opportunity.

1.1.2.              The fast success

The project started with 3.000 euro for the productions of 200 copies, with the concern of selling them from the Arduino team, given that Banzi’s school bought only 50 pieces. Nevertheless, immediately after they realized that several hobbyists and geeks showed interest in this project, thus the team started to think about building a business on it, focusing the entire strategy on the open source design: “see what has happened with the iPhone, they would copy you in any case” said Banzi, “hence we decided to keep it open using a Creative Commons[6] license called Attribution-Share alike, giving anyone the opportunity to modify and release new version of the hardware”.  Under the Creative Commons license, anyone is allowed to produce copies of the board, to redesign it, or even to sell boards that copy the design, without the need to pay a license fee to the Arduino team or even to ask for permission.

The only piece of Intellectual Property (IP) the team protects is the name Arduino, the main asset of the company which is trademarked. In fact, in order to ensure that the brand name is not negatively influenced by low quality copies, anyone who is willing to sell boards using that name has to pay a small fee to Arduino.

The basic version of the board costs around 26 euro, and can be purchased from hobbyist electronics websites. In particular, the company highlights that the boards are “made in Italy”, thus not using cheap labour and low quality materials: they had the Italian map stamped on the front of the first board, and also the names they used recall their Italian origin (e.g. Arduino Duemilanove, Arduino Diecimila, and Arduino Uno which is the last version).

Figure 5 Arduino UNO: front (left) and back (right)

Source: http://www.arduino.cc

The success of Arduino is obvious.  From the 200 first boards sold in 2005, 5.000 Arduino board were built around the world a year later, about 30.000 in 2007, and more than 220.000 at the end of 2010. The trend is showed by figure 6, which is referred to the basic version of the Arduino microcontroller board (e.g. Arduino Uno).

Figure 6 Trends in the sales of Arduino’s microcontroller board

Source: Massimo Banzi, Arduino co-founder

The graph clearly shows a positive trend of the sales about the microcontroller board, therefore the first 1.000.000 boards sold could be reached within the next two years. Interestingly, the sales have a “seasonal trend”[7]: users buy Arduino boards mainly from September to April, while in the summer time the sales are declining.

To confirm the quality of the “made in Italy” board, Banzi highlight that about 100 out the total boards sold were defective and they get back from the distributors, “neither Apple has a lower percentage than us for the Ipod[8]. In fact, Gianluca Martino, who is the responsible for the production, manually test each board; in this way the team make sure their brand is not affected by unstable products, a key element for OSH users. In addition, in December 2010, “Il Sole 24 Ore[9]” featured Arduino in its list of the ten innovation of the decade, along with Apple, Facebook, Google and Wikipedia. The Italian economics newspaper is also promoting an online survey asking people to vote for the most innovative product among on that list. Up to 20 February 2011, about 23% of the Italians who participate in the survey believe that the best innovation of the last 10 years was made by Banzi& Co, ranking Arduino at the second place. Equally important, Wired Magazine in an article of January 2011 appointed Banzi as one of the top 10 web CEO worldwide[10].

Looking beyond the scope of Arduino’s figures, Google was consulted to reveal Arduino search results: up to 20 February 2011 the Arduino name is present in more than 4.3 million web pages[11], an additional indicator that shows the Arduino prominence in the web.

Currently, Arduino is employed by leading institutions like MIT Media Lab (they run a course based entirely on Arduino), NYU, Domus Academy, and companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Texas Instruments who use the Italian main board for prototyping.

It is clear that one of the success factors of the spreading of Arduino is given by the community: Arduino is also referred as a “social hardware”. Nonetheless, other OSH players strongly contribute to the promotion of the Italian microcontroller board. Below are reported the most prominent actors that for some extent are involved in the analysis.

Make: Projects is a collaborative resource for people who like to make new things. It is enhanced for creating projects that are visually rich and organized as step-by-step procedures with listings for tools and materials. Anyone can create a project by demonstrating how to make something.  Most importantly, anyone can edit any project in Make: Projects. While anyone can edit, only approved edits become public. That approval process depends upon the person’s reputation in the system, which is gained over time.

Instructables is a web-based documentation platform where passionate people share what they do and how they do it, and learn from and collaborate with their peers. The seeds of Instructables germinated at the MIT Media Lab to built places to share their projects and help others.

The website gains a lot of success and plays a key role for Arduino, given that they are usually to host an Arduino context that forces users to participate with their innovation. They are rewarded mainly in visibility, another important clue in the social hardware environment. As a result, they have an Arduino dedicate channel were people can post their project.

Their business model seems sustainable in the long run: they get royalties not only from advertisement, but also from subscriptions by premium members’ account which is becoming bigger.

Thingverse and The internet of Things are also platforms where users can share digital designs that can be made into real physical objects.

NYC Resistor is a hacker collective with a shared space located in New York City. They meet regularly to share knowledge, hack on projects together, and build community. Hardware is a physical product, and in contrast to software, it needs physical components in order to be produced, therefore there is also a need for users to have face-to-face meetings. Enthusiastic geeks can join public meetings in their offices.  This physical community spun off several companies: some of the members developed gadgets based on Arduino microcontroller and sold them through their online shops.

Ponoko is an online marketplace for users who want to make real things.

It’s where creators, digital fabricators, materials suppliers and buyers meet to make (almost) anything[12]”. They provide a fabrication service to enable others to make and sell products. As a part of the service, they are connected to the SparkFun[13] catalogue of electronic hardware into Ponoko system: in such a way the designers who use the Ponoko system can order Arduino electronics directly from SparkFun along with their fabricated parts with a single payment. As a result, Ponoko has a key role in the future of manufacturing: the employment of Arduino for custom-made laser-cut or 3D printed is leading to some great products.

Parallax provides the electronics industry products that are technically innovative, unique, and economical. This is achieved by a combination of thoughtful, creative design and quality workmanship. The company was established in the ‘80s; however they adjusted their business in response to the OSH development.

Nevertheless, the question about the sustainably of the business is deducted. The discussion made about software in section 1.4 showed some differences between these OS movements. Software costs almost nothing to reproduce; the Arduino team, instead, has to pay something in order to produce its boards before selling them.  According to the classical economic theory, this approach should requires a patent in order to protects the innovation and rewards the risk the entrepreneurs incur, otherwise competitors can immediately rip off their designs and gain their market.  Currently, Arduino business model is based on the strategy to sell many hardware components, thus they will increase also the likelihood to sell their expertise as inventors. In fact, although anyone can manufacture a physical device even in China or in other countries with low manufacturing costs, communities of users will inevitably recognize that the inventor has some firsthand knowledge that is the most valuable asset, which can be sold to anyone.

As a matter of fact, Arduino makes little of the sale of each board, enough to get rolled into the next production cycle. They get 10% as royalties from distributors, so on the price of 26 euro (for the basic board) even the quantity sold so far, would not be sufficient to run the company.

However, the main income comes from the clients who want to build devices based on the board hiring Arduino founders as consultants.

Since 2007, Arduino run this consultancy activity through a company based in London, Tinker.it which had the goal to design products and services that “bridge the digital and the physical[14]”. They wanted to teach people how to use new technologies in creative ways through a hands-on approach, challenging existing design, innovation and research practices.

However, the market was not ready to this kind of services offered by the multidisciplinary design studio. It is still not wide spread the importance of design in innovation process, that is why “design companies are several step back the innovation currently available” said Banzi.

As a result, the company  shut down in December 2010, and in the meantime Arduino team was mainly concentrating on myriad of educational activities, which have been seen especially Massimo Banzi involved in this activities everywhere in the world. However, Arduino is going ahead on this. By the end of February 2011, they should create a real and “lean” company, with an Arduino store that link also potential users entrepreneurs. A comprehensive analysis of the future step that Arduino will likely made is reported in section 3.3, as a result of discussion with Massimo Banzi, who was willing to disclose in preview next strategies.

Overall, the success of Arduino is mainly based on the toolkits for user innovation (everyone can modify the hardware as well as the software used for prototyping), by the trial and error learning approach (design through prototyping), the easiness to use (USB interface), the design (no need for a factory to create the hardware) and Instructables (in the website there is every step of the invention).

In a nutshell: open approach, brand and community.

1.1.3.              Breakthrough from Arduino users

Geeks and anyone interested in programming and in interaction designs become immediately attracted by Arduino. The same was true among students, who could develop their own projects at a reasonable cost, but anyone in general can foster their creativity with Arduino. “You do not need to be an engineer to do it, anyone can open, modify, and change the hardware with the tools all freely available online” said Banzi [15].That is how people start to develop odd products, which allow them to interact with the environment. In addition, Arduino came exactly at the right time, in the new era of Do it Yourself (DIY). There is a resurgence of DIY among geeks interested in hacking and improving hardware, fuelled by ever-cheaper electronics they can buy online, build-it yourself publications like Make magazine, and Web sites like Instructables. Moreover, in this ecosystem the growing of Arduino community performs free labour as consultants.

Therefore, not only hobbyists and engineers were fast attracted by Arduino, but also artists and designers found it specifically designed for them. The Arduino microcontroller allows artists and designers to execute electronic-incorporated works without knowing the internals of the hardware or software easily and inexpensively. In fact, artists and designers are capable of completing tasks traditionally completed by electrical engineers, creating de facto an alliance of engineers, artists and designers under the Arduino umbrella. That makes a huge change, because engineers tend to design platforms for other engineers, not for artists, or kids who want to connect easily stuff to interact with object. In addition, Arduino usable design affects on creativity: users spend less time figuring out the inner workings and more time experimenting and discovering how it can be used in different environments or scenarios. In this context, it is important to consider that everything is supported by the Arduino community, which also helps to inspire other Arduino users.

Furthermore, Arduino as a tool for artists and designers is being introduced in art museums and galleries: the growing popularity reveals that artists and designers are embracing this as the tool was intended.

Several science museums have hosted Arduino, such Museum of Science and Industry, Exploratorium and the Science Museum of Minnesota, Triennale di Milano and Salone di Genova. Furthermore, Arduino has a relevant impact also at educational level: even students from high schools are able to do easy and cheap prototyping, subsequently several innovations are coming from school projects.

As a result, the list of projects running by Arduino users is comprehensive, almost daily updated with new projects presented in OSH platforms; however those innovations are not always translated into real commercialized products. The important aspect is that some of these projects are already available thanks to existing technology, however others they are purely innovative. The concept is still based on interactive design: users can make products that allow them to interact with the world.

In order to give an idea of these projects, table 2 shows a description of a selected innovations made by Arduino users. It is important to notice that this is only a short representation of the projects. They were selected among others which acquired strong interest in the Arduino community, and they were ranked among the top Arduino projects by specialized OSH websites and according to the comments the gadgets received from other users.

Table 2 Arduino projects made by users.

Project and inventor

Description

Kickbee

Created by the designer Corey Menscher, when his wife was pregnant

It is a stretchable band worn by a pregnant mother. Vibration sensors are attached directly to the band. These are triggered by movement underneath. The Arduino microcontroller captures the movement and transmits the signals to an application. When a kick is detected, a message is posted to a social network, which makes easy to share these short messages of “I kicked Mommy!”
Good night lamp

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

(CEO of Thinker.it)

It is a family of lamps which allow people to communicate the act of coming back home to their loved ones, remotely. When the bigger light is turned on, the owner of the smaller lamps turn on as well, which indicates the presence at home of the other person

Not so white wall

Dario Buzzini

It is an example of digitizing a mundane object,  making it interactive. Wall paper is imbued with an electrically sensitive ink and controlled by Arduino, in effect creating a low fidelity wall sized display screen

LilyPad

Leah Buechley

It is a wearable version of the Arduino designed to be sewn into fabric with conductive thread. The LilyPad was derived from the Arduino to be a fully integrated soft circuit microcontroller that was visually appealing. Buechley originally designed the LilyPad Arduino for children soft circuit class, but it was immediately embraced by artists and communities that drive new design

Bell music system

Tellart

Users can select a love song (or compose their own) and then watch it play in the Tellart offices. The system is composed of a series of bells that are connected to an Arduino. When a user zips a song over Tellart’s webserver, the Arduino gets notified and sets off the solenoids to play the bells. The bells then chime the song (for example, “Unchained Melody”) while you watch it streaming live

Secret Knock Gumball Machine

Steve Hoefer

 

It Is a candy vending machine that only dispenses treats when people knock the “secret rhythm” on its front panel

Oswash

Jean-Noël Montagné

It is an example of OS washing machine project which aims to “rethink the way we wash clothes around the world”, in accordance with economical, sociological, cultural and environmental aspects, giving an alternative to most of the people in the word who currently wash clothes by hand due to the lack of  resources

Solar Power Application

(Wolfe 2009)

It is an OS Monitoring System for remote Solar Power Applications that deals with the reduction of production costs, using open platforms to make solar monitoring available in developing countries where both the resources and general knowledge are particularly scarce

PH Probe

An ongoing project that aims to make laboratory tools that replicate the commercial ones for a reasonable price. In particular, in Latin America a PH probe is now under development, using Arduino as heart of the projects

Arduino espresso machine and boat

Timothy Hirzel

The inventor hacked an espresso machine and a boat

in connection to a nunchuck Wii controller, which receives signals through the Arduino

DIY Magic Mirrow

It plays animations based on input from various sensors the user choose. Featuring four characters, each character responds to the sensor inputs with its own personality

The table describes how users have created the most disparate and outlandish projects, just for fun or with the purpose of solving a particular need. Moreover, the selected projects show also how users made not only non-marketed products, but also goods embedding cheaper alternative technologies that already exist.


[1] Source: http://www.arduino.cc/ First accessed 10 September 2010.

[2] Ivrea is a town and commune of the province of Turin in the Piedmont , a region of north-western Italy.

[3]Microcontrollers are small computing systems used for low power and low memory purposes. A microcontroller consists of a microchip on a circuit board with read-write capabilities, memory, inputs and outputs. Source: Alicia Gibb website http://aliciagibb.com/ First accessed 27 October 2010

[4] Arduino is the name of the Bar in Ivrea, where the team was used to hang out.

[5] Composed also by Tom Igoe and Gianluca Martino.

[6] Source: http://creativecommons.org/ First accessed 4 January 2011

[7] Not showed by figure 6 given the lack of exacts seasonal trends

[8] Banzi at OH Summit, 23 September 2010

[11] Source: www.google.com  Arduino keyword. First accessed 10 September 2010

[12] Source: Josh Judkins, Ponoko team.

[13] One of the companies included in the sample presented later.

[15] Banzi holds a degree in Engineering.

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