Making Arduino: Interview with David Cuartielles

Is it possible to sense if an specific technological advance was made with genuine good faith? Talking with the founders of Arduino, you always have this honest impression. Some time ago we interviewed Massimo Banzi at Barcelona (you can read it here) and few months later we had the serendipitous chance of talking with David Cuartielles, co-creator of Arduino, as well as Electronics Laboratory Director at Malmö University and an active promoter of open hardware and education through technology.

Arduino is becoming something like a household name in electronics, being used widely by the Maker movement. For those who are not familiarized with it yet, let’s summarize saying that Arduino is an open source board of micro-controllers which has revolutionized the way of making interactive objects: easier, cheaper and backed on the community cooperation. A new way of understanding electronics, interactivity and our relationship with the world around us . As put in <<Arduino: The documentary>>: “It’s kind of like I’m taking one step up a ladder and helping other people go further up the ladder”. Talking with David Cuartielles in the Web Summit at Dublin, we better understood why Arduino’s community is unstoppably climbing the ladder of technological evolution.

P.N. Every day manufacturers are launching new “compatible with Arduino” stuff. It seems that it could happen in the future that everybody will say “an arduino” for any electronics board, as it is becoming like a generic…

D.C. Yes, something like this is happening and I must say that it is a honor to me, as we are changing the way people understands the creation of hardware and software.

David Cuartielles at Dublin Web Summit 2014
David Cuartielles at Dublin Web Summit 2014

P.N. How did you start working together in the Arduino project?

D.C. It’s a funny story. I started studying electronic engineering and working in the University, and I realized that even being a passionate of electronics in that moment I didn’t really liked the practice of it. I was 24 then. So I took the chance offered by the School of Arts and Communication of Malmö University, On January 1rst 2001 I took my car, all my things, and I drove through the bridge to Malmö, Sweden. In the University I gave Java lessons to Industrial Design and Interactive Design students: people who had no former education on technology, meaning that I was teaching to people who didn’t knew what an algorithm is, or discrete mathematics, or mathematic thinking at all. It wasn’t easy, I had to invent a full series of methods. Now it seems normal because many people is working on this, but back in the year 2001 there was nobody.

Then in 2002 – 2003 some of my students went to the University of Applied Sciences Postdam to make their Master’s degrees, and I get in touch with the university as well, as they were interested in what we were doing. It happens that by then I was making a board for my lessons: it had nothing to do with Arduino yet, but I was working on that already with my students. At the same time, more people started working on similar things, for instance at Tisch SchoolTom Aigoe and Dan O’Sullivan created something like the concept of physical computing. Sudenly there were a bunch of schools that had come to the conclusion that it was necessary to teach digital technology to designers and artists, because they were the ones to create the future of interaction. And I was a part of that movement. Then, there was a teacher which worked both in Postdam and Ivrea, and he told me that there was that professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, Massimo Banzi, who was very busy and needed someone to lend a hand. We made an agreement for three months, and there I went to Ivrea with my brother, 1rst January 2005: he worked on the software and I worked on the hardware. But while we worked on this we realized that the system wasn’t working as we wanted. For instance, we were having problems like we didn’t have the bootloader source code: the guy who made it was in conflict with the school and he didn’t gave it, so I needed to make my own bootloader, my own libraries… I had my board experience and Massimo had his, so when I was about to finish my agreement period, I told him: “Look, we really need a platform, we want to make the project, and I think that it should be open, what it is happening now with the system shouldn’t be happening no more. We can’t allow that a proprietary of a tiny part of it blocks the training of our students”. Massimo said: “It is exactly like this, let’s find the way to make it”. We made a list comparing both boards, we came to the conclusion that his processor was far better, it was an Atmel that can build the compiler in any operating system. We look it in the boards, and in such a natural way we started to collaborate. Two days after I had already made the board design with amendments, and we made around 150 boards. And then, when we had the board, they announce that Ivrea was closing: it was all of a sudden, in a week or so. So it was clear that there was no other way but to making it open.

Then we started to announce it, we uploaded it to the Internet, we created a wiki, we told people this was open –people started to wonder about what was that “open” about, and even there were people who criticized it. Then we studied how to license it and I talked with Spanish lawyer Javier de la Cueva: we decided to license the platform as Creative Commons as it was a non-tangible intellectual property, we needed something different for the hardware. So it started like this, very naturally.

P.N. Usually technological innovation mostly comes from English-speaking countries, but in this case it came mainly from an European context: it was born in an Italian university,  Massimo is Italian, you are Spanish… Did it have a reason to be like this?

D.C. Well, I think that our strength came of joining forces. But at the same time some other people were developing their platforms, so if we haven’t met, probably we’d just developed our platforms separately, and they had coexisted. But the fact that we joined gave us a good story, and that’s what people caught.

We were teachers then, and we still are. At first, we didn’t had any idea to make something like a company. We were thinking in making a very good platform to teach our lessons, and then we’ll see. What happened was that people started to have a real interest, and then we put a price which was not to earn money, but to maintain the website. It was like one half of what it costed the cheaper board by then, so it started to spread and we had a million and a half boards. This increased people’s expectations. I think that one of the main roles that Arduino has had was to help people understand that you can make technology with a reasonable price without compromising the results, because it can be of a better quality than the more expensive ones.

P.N. So you became a company out of necessity…

D.C. It came a moment that we hadn’t any alternative. Suddenly we had people to be paid in order to maintain the software, I was spending like four or five hours seven days the week in Arduino’s forum… Some day we realized that we were spending around USD $3,000 in Internet monthly, and we understood that we needed someone specifically for that task. Thus we opened the store with the confidence that it will help us to sell a little, and this pushed us to start the company. We never had a business plan, the first one has been done this year: and I’m so happy because Massimo has worked extremely hard on this.

Arduino's Team Attitude
Arduino: Team Attitude

P.N. Who are the members of the company?

D.C. We are five. Tom Aigoe, David Mellis, Gianluca Martino, Massimo and I. Massimo works as the CEO of the company, I dedicate more to research. Gianluca is focused in production. Tom has been always more involved in contents, he was also involved in the IDE development for Arduino Tre. Dave has always been more into software architecture issues, now he goes around the developers forum and establishes the standards for libraries and so on.

P.N. You’ve talked about your early choice of making Arduino an open source project. It seems that there are like two factions now: those who are fighting for more severe IP and patent laws, and those who are working to make open source a general option, isn’t it?

D.C. Well, there is some people who think that if you make something for money, then you have to show only the outward appearance and persecute those who copy it, as everything can be copied nowadays at the speed of light. But, let’s face it, it can be copied anyway. We also have lawyers, like Intel or anybody. But if we should also pay patents and spend money in all sort of other legal issues, we should double the spending in this. Technology has so much advanced, that it takes just some days to make any copy.

For instance, when we made Arduino Leonardo, by mistake we launched too early the definition files about how to connect the processor featured in the board to the software –but there were no board schematics, only one photo we uploaded: so people had only the photo and the definition files. It became like a game: to create a copy of an Arduino Leonardo board that nobody had, there were just this photo and the pins definition file. It aroused people’s interest: some made copies to put them into the market, but there were also communities who worked together to improve the hardware. And it brought problems as well, as the bootloader issue: people asked for a bootloader and it was really difficult. We spent a lot of money in engineering! The tricky thing with this bootloader is that in this case it was necessary a whole new process of loading the memory, as it has a chip with a native USB, which also has to act as an USB port. It is necessary to make a full temporizing process, and it was really complex. But people didn’t understood this then, they thought that we were saving this information for later. And it took us so much work!

P.N. Arduino has a really strong potential in education, how are you facing this?

D.C. Nowadays education confronts a fast-moving, ever-changing technology, and unfortunately educational methodologies are not evolving in the same speed. There are efforts to change this: by one hand, there are changes on the education tools, and by the other hand there are attempts to adapt the methodologies. At Arduino we are very aware of all these challenges and we try to face them from different levels: we must provide with a technology which has to be reasonably deterministic, useful to do things, and cheap; but also people needs tools to be specifically used in the classroom, with strong collaborative ingredients.

P.N. You have travelled by Latin America, and know first-hand that particular scenario. Which are your impressions?

D.C. I think that by now the problem there is the connectivity –not only technically, but also on an  understanding, and emotional level. They are very focused in building their own industrial fabric, in making it well, and the discourse about creativity in technology sounds odd to them nowadays.

Besides, there’s also the issue of how people surfs online: our systems are mostly based on mouse and keyboard, but they principally use mobile devices. The challenge is how to explain Arduino through this channel… I invite you to read the typical blog about Java on a smartphone, or an Android developer’s page on an Android device: it’s hard! That’s paradoxical. So technology creation won’t be appealing for people there if it requires a kind of interaction that they don’t have: if the tools to create software and hardware are built upon a keyboard and a mouse, people won’t learn because interaction won’t be possible.

P.N. And which are your challenges for the near future?

D.C. I’m working on strengthening our efforts on the educational side, we are about to launch a macrosystem to help teachers to give their technology lessons with online support. I have also a couple of products in mind to launch at Arduino, and they will need some structure. It is essential to continue creating products for Arduino: they are the future of the company.

If this interview whet your appetite for more about David Cuartielles and Arduino, here you have his inspiring speech at TEDx.

PostDigital Node

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