The open source revolution certainly has taken the world by storm. What started as something that could be pegged as something for Academia only and as utopia in the cut throat commercial world in the early seventies is now a reality. It has changed the way our kids learn, the speed technology evolves, the level of accessibility less privileged individuals have to technology, and so many other aspects that some are now linking the open source movement with the very fabric of how companies will function and, why not to say, how society will live.
Open source is a movement of individuals of like-minded thinking about how collaborative software development should be. The open source community is composed of volunteers who support the philosophy that software is to be shared freely amongst the members of the community; with no single ownership or cost to use it. Such members grow the code base with free contributions to the movement and, in exchange, the knowledge and code base that grows at an exponential rate is available to them, and anyone else for that matter, free.
It is impossible to say open source without immediately thinking Linux. The Unix-based operating system that was created by a student in 1991 – again Academia helping shape our future – is now almost as popular as the one day single ruler Microsoft Windows. For the ones with their fingers kept close in the pulse of the evolution of the Software development community, many more examples come to mind, such as; MySQL for databases, Apache for server software, Python for general scripting programming, PHP for web design and many others.
In fact, if we focus on the case of Linux, it became so popular and powerful that companies that historically have shied away from it in favor of Microsoft Windows as the operating system of choice for their products are now being forced to offer products for Linux as well. Even National Instruments – yes I couldn’t leave NI out of this text as it is one of my favorite companies and one that I have built my entire career around – have yielded to the Linux storm and now has a Linux real time distribution as the operating system for its new compact RIO controllers.
Historically, open source has been always correlated to Software. However, the community produced an aftershock of the first movement that has been as unexpected and formidable as the original one; the Hardware open source movement. The hardware open source movement, in its core, carries the same philosophy as its older brother: all artifacts produced are open and disclosed. In the Hardware world, that means schematics, bill of materials, mechanical model files, printed circuit board layout files, even manufacturing ready gerber sets are made available to the community.
There are several popular open source hardware projects; such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino. Some others are new kids on this block but are none less coming out strong, such as UDOO and Red Pitaya. I will focus on one for this article: Arduino. In my opinion, Arduino is for the Hardware open source movement what Linux was for the Software one. Arduino was the precursor of so many other projects of the same nature that an impressive critical mass was generated by the Hardware community around these types of projects. Arduino has now been slowly but surely migrating beyond the hobbyist audience, into the professional industrial one. Engineers have discovered Arduino as a power low cost hardware platform; allowing them to, very quickly and inexpensively, develop proof of concepts to solve problems in a variety of industries. The Test and Measurements industry has also seen this invasion. In my opinion, one of the barriers for a more massive adoption of the Arduino platform is the fact that LabVIEW, the dominant software environment for the Test and Measurements industry, couldn’t run in an Arduino board. Until now, LabVIEW has limited itself to only communicate with Arduino boards via serial port, restricting and constraining itself to a mere user interface displaying variables coming from the Arduino embedded software. I say restricting as LabVIEW is much, much more than just a tool for Engineers to build GUIs. It has became a powerful programming language, and migrated to the top of the Test and Measurements chart as the tool of choice by Engineers and Scientists.
If you notice on my last paragraph, I mentioned, until now, LabVIEW has limited itself to a mere supporting role in the Arduino show. I am excited and happy to announce that there is now a product, an actual compiler product that takes any LabVIEW VI, compiles, downloads and runs LabVIEW VI code embedded in any Arduino target available in the market: the Arduino Compiler for LabVIEW. The target release date for the product is end of March, but it has already generated quite a level of interest by the community.
As a technology enthusiast and an Engineer myself, I can’t wait to see what the community will come up with next. It is a good time to be an Engineer for sure.