Arduino says Hello

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I finally got my first Arduino board last week (a Diecimila, to be specific.) It’s been on my list of “things I want to hack on” for awhile, so I eagerly awaited it’s arrival. It’s been a good ten years since I’ve built anything in the Art Installation / Physical Computing genre — which is ten years way too long.

In preparation for my first weekend with the Arduino, I hit up SparkFun and a local electronics store for a handful of little gizmos to wire up. I’m still a newbie when it comes to designing electronics (though to be honest, that’s part of the fun), so I started off by following the “Spooky Projects – Introduction to Microcontrollers with Aurdino” lessons. With the Spooky Projects built (minus the glowing skull, unfortunately), I wrapped up the weekend experimenting with potentiometers as the controls for animation timing in a few late-night, generative-art pieces I’ve built using Processing.

So far it’s all good fun — and something I’d definitely encourage folks to try.

My new phone used to be a web tablet

The Maemo team has been quietly rocking Nokia’s world for some time now. They’re off in the background building (almost pocketable) mobile computers; fine-tuning touch interfaces and small-screen UIs; becoming experts in embedded linux; and bringing top-notch open source software and modern development tools to this unique mobile platform. For years, the Nokia tablets have sat on the side-lines as niche devices for hackers; but lately, the team has been changing the game.

The Nokia 770 and N800 have always faced an up-hill battle with market adoption given their lack of GSM/CDMA support. “Is it a phone?” is one of the first questions people ask when they see me using one these devices. Saying “No, it’s a web tablet” only brings a look of confusion. Thankfully, the latest software releases, wider market recognition of UMPC‘s, and the iPhone release, have had a huge impact on the perception of the N800.

The Internet Tablet OS 2007 edition 4.2007.26-8 upgrade (released earlier this month) brought Skype support to the N800. While perhaps playing second fiddle to a Flash upgrade that makes YouTube work better, adding Skype greatly improves the likelyhood of using the N800 as a portable VoIP device. However, even more significant is the recent Internet Communications Software Update for N800. This update adds SIP support to the N800 for VoIP calls — a feature that turned my N800 into my new desk-phone at work.

At Optaros, we use Asterisk to run our phone infrastructure. There are the occasional physical SIP phones in conference rooms, but in general, we use soft-phones running on our laptops to make and receive calls. The downside here is portability. Even using WIFI, a laptop doesn’t make the best cordless phone. But an N800 does. The N800 is actually quite nice as a cordless phone; and with WIFI available in the office, at home, and at nearly every business in Austin, my phone extension can now be routed to my Nokia device and be available almost everywhere.

It may take awhile for the market to notice this, but Nokia is quietly taking the top-spot in mobile linux and VoIP hardware know-how. The Nokia linux tablets aren’t quite ready for the general consumer (in terms of usability), and the marketing messages aren’t there yet either — but the R&D is, and the technology will be ready to drop-in and rock the mobile-phone world as soon as the strategy dictates.

Ubuntu + Hildon UI = in-Car PC UI

Awhile back, Ubuntu announced a mobile and embedded edition of it’s popular Linux distribution. The buzz was around the possibility of Ubuntu Mobile showing up on future UMPCs. The news caught my eye, but didn’t really get my attention until the plans for Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon) were announced:

“Ubuntu 7.10 will be the first Ubuntu release to offer a complete mobile and embedded edition built with the Hildon user interface components” (developed by Nokia for the Maemo platform.)

Now that’s interesting. Could it be that we’ll see Ubuntu Mobile booting on Nokia N800’s? It’s certainly a possibility — and one that could bring a larger breadth of software to Nokia’s mobile Linux tablets.

However, as interesting as it may be if Nokia adopts Ubuntu, the possibilities for wider Hildon support didn’t hit me until my drive home today. It was one of those obvious moments. I had been using my Nokia N800 while walking to my car, so the touch- and small-screen friendly UI was fresh in my mind. Then I started thinking about my Car PC. It uses a 7″ touch screen and runs Ubuntu (a full distribution, with a UI designed for full-size monitors.) Running Gnome on my cheap, in-car 7″ monitor makes for a pretty lousy experience. Text is hard to read, and everything is too small to click on. However, if this news is right, Ubuntu 7.10 will change all of that. I’ll be able to run Hildon on my Car PC! That’s killer. Imagine having Canola running in-car, sitting on 100GB of multimedia…

iPhone development platform will wake up the mobile industry

One of the most interesting topics of iPhone speculation is the choice of interpreted, web technologies as the development platform. I greeted the news with a big smile, and a sigh of obviousness. Having spent a few frustrating years preaching the potential of agile mobile development platforms, it sits near and dear to me to here that Apple is paying attention to a bigger market.

Of course, the old-school, “Mobile 1.0” crowd’s reaction is just as I would expect. Some of the claims make me laugh, so I felt motivated to chime in on the topic. Let’s break down the big three that I’m hearing:

“No SDK means no killer apps.” There are two issues here: (1) That there are ‘killer’ mobile apps that aren’t already included in the iPhone; and (2) That killer apps can’t be built with web technologies. For the first bit, ask yourself what the killer mobile apps are? Number One is voice… Number Two is SMS… Number Three varies, but support for syncing PIM data, taking pictures, listening to music, checking email, and browsing the web, pretty much covers it. For the second part, to assume that killer apps can’t be built with web technologies would require denying the last ten years of Internet development. The Web has changed everything — and it was built with web technologies ;-) Besides, Apple hasn’t commented yet on whether they’re exposing select native API’s via JavaScript.

“No clear revenue stream (for developers and operators) means no developers.” Stop thinking Mobile 1.0. Stop thinking traditional channels. Stop thinking about the Operators and Manufacturers “owning a customer”. Drop all this telcom baggage and start looking at the Web. There are plenty of companies making significant revenue simply because a large number of people have a browser and a data connection to their PCs. If anything, the mobile market becomes more interesting (and potentially more lucrative) when application development is cheap and the legacy mobile bureaucracy is out of the way.

“Developers need low-level access to the hardware.” This actually came up in a recent conversation, and I just about walked away at that point. Are you kidding? Do you have any idea how much of a PITA (and HUGE waste of time) it is to develop high-quality, reliable, usable, native applications on embedded hardware? I do. And I can assure you that you want no part of it. I appreciate the occasional need, and I’m sure Apple can give the John Carmack’s and Google’s of the world a l33t SDK; but if you’re looking to develop innovative, profitable mobile applications, there’s no reason for you to be tracking down memory leaks and hardware bugs. The less time you waste fighting the hardware, the more time you’ll have to launch new software. (If you don’t believe me, compare the rates of software and business model innovation that happens on the Web vs. on mobile phones. Mobile phones have done wonders for flattening the world, but they can’t compare to the Web as an environment for cheap, rapid innovation.)