May News

I can tell you fancy, I can tell you plain
You give something up for everything you gain
Since every pleasure's got an edge of pain
Pay for your ticket and don't complain

   Silvio, by Bob Dylan and Robert Hunter
Copyright © 1988 by Special Rider Music
Lyrics at bobdylan.com


Mainly software this month

We try to keep a day a week for new work or evaluation (just plain fun mostly). Fortunately, this month we could indulge ourselves at modest cost. Each evaluation board ranges from one to four bottles of red wine (at local prices if you don't want to damage your liver). It's the freight that hurts sometimes!

The devices in this month's lineup are for touch sensors or similar input switches; areas where these manufacturers have a range of products and patents. Various Atmel devices have large amounts of Flash, QTouch inputs and an external bus interface. Energy Micro's boards have a prox sensor, a light sensor as well as touch sensors. The NXP board was to try out any processor with a low cost network without having to add on a bus driver. Sure beats RS-485 with controlling the direction of the buffer and not knowing if the last bit was actually shifted out of the transmit pin (plus stop bit), or merely delaying after the transmit register was empty.

We can't tell you much about other work under NDAs, but it is embedded real-time stuff.

Manufacturing

National Instruments in their newsletter aim to increase the number of pupils in STEM as they feel there are too few engineers. Maybe they missed the news that well over a hundred thousand have been retrenched recently. Perhaps they were unsuitable? Well, 30,000 shortly from one of the largest technology companies should at least be able to fill the mythical dearth of engineers. We have heard this swan song for the past thirty years as a student, in industry, academia, and now in semi-retirement.

A little further on we look at manufacturing's demise from current reports. We feel that the incredible losses point to poor management, auditing companies clearly not doing their jobs, and legal problems with litigation for tech companies ensnared in patent minefields. Governments don't help anyone, so we have not added politicians to the list of engineering woes — there is little they can do with competing open beaks to feed, particularly as western society has become accustomed to a diet of welfare, many public holidays, the odd sickie, unsustainable lifestyles, $6 billion election campaigns and $2 trillion military budgets, however, engineers cannot say we did not benefit from military budgets.


FreeRTOS

We have installed FreeRTOS and purchased the manuals. It is no longer feasible to maintain our own version of a tick based kernel plus documentation against the excellent offerings — at no cost or modest fees to be protected against lawsuits. The trace analyzer at Percepio has extensive support for FreeRTOS, and the Atollic TrueSTUDIO toolchain has RTOS aware debug available in their standard edition.

Atollic Toolchain

The Energy Micro Tiny Gecko and Giant Gecko evaluation boards shipped with the Atollic TrueSTUDIO toolchain. We already have the Rowley CrossWorks toolchain, which is also integrated with Energy Micro's Simplicity Studio. We were having little luck in attaching to the Freescale Kinetix K40 (KwikStix) with the Rowley tools (used to see the board with it's integrated Segger probe), so we thought of testing it with the Atollic tools, which were able to test it as well as run FreeRTOS on the KwikStix board. We have not had a lot of time with the software, but they are generous with a 90 day evaluation, so we will get to test the package in anger.

Other RTOS work

We had another look at MQX, ChibiOS/RT, Xinu and others. We also revisited the I/O cards and expired patents. This is long-term stuff; more than a single month's posting achievement.


Energy Micro

The Scandinavian countries have managed to develop low power controllers — maybe something to do with the cold weather? Atmel, Energy Micro and Axis Communications are some of our favourites. We need some small processors for switch sensing without massive power budgets. Wireless would be a bonus. We have been following the Energy Micro website for a while, particularly their Draco radio options.

In 2011, we downloaded Energy Micro's IEC 60335 Class B libraries. These are only for use on Energy Micro devices. The software was well documented.

The boards have been plugged in, briefly tested and we like them a lot! Rowley Associates CrossWorks is called directly from within Simplicity Studio, plus the Atollic toolchain has excellent Energy Micro support.

Energy Micro Evaluation kit boxes

Energy Micro evaluation kits.


Atmel

Atmel has a nice habit of announcing a product when they have evaluation boards available to ship. No waiting years for the silicon to materialize. Their recent A5 based device looks very neat, but we have opted for some of the SAM4S Xplained boards. The external bus option, the free toolchain (Atmel Studio 6.1), plus low-cost evaluation boards with built-in debuggers need to be considered for customers whose primary business is not embedded development, and do not wish to invest in expensive tools. The external memory bus was also an attraction for better instrumentation later on.

One day was not enough time to really test them, but the package is impressive. The software examples were well documented (Doxygen) and ran as promised.

We should have ordered the display card for some of the demos, but that will have to wait until July, once we have completed year-end in June.

Atmel Evaluation kits

Atmel evaluation kits.


Code Red Technologies

NXP announced their Code Red Technologies acquisition on 1st May — one of the first companies with a serial viewer trace on low-cost boards. This is obviously a blow for companies like Silicon Laboratories, as support beyond NXP will only be until May, 2014. How many other GCC vendors are there with source level debugging over JTAG? NXP is fairly far down the shipment rankings and still loaded with debt after their separation from Philips Electronics, however, their 2012 revenue was a respectable $4,36 billion. Others higher up in the rankings could acquire your favourite compiler vendor, or go the Atmel route and create a toolchain based on GCC and the Eclipse IDE.

We revisited some contact wetting related patents — prior art and patents will be referenced as we move the LPC11C24 device (with CAN PHY) into our I/O cards on the front-end. A bonus is that the Code-Red toolchain runs on Mac OSX besides Windows.

NXP news and board

NXP/ Code Red development kit. Several boards were purchased to test the CAN and Code-Red toolchain. We will be using the LPC11C24 for small switch sensors in due course.


NetBSD

We have relied on the Apple TimeMachine for backups, however, with more work being done under Windows (SolidWorks, PCB layout etc), we need to have a centralised file backup. We had various Linux systems in the past, which were somehow neglected as we found more tools being migrated to Mac OSX (Doxygen, cross compilers, LaTeX). One of the daughters needed to upgrade from an older quad-core AMD x86-64 bit with 4 GBytes of RAM, so we tried to install various flavours of Linux taken from DVDs that ship with magazines. Ubuntu tries their best to keep the terminal screen well hidden, plus continually having to do a “sudo” for anything useful became tiring. Fedora 18 has changed their installer, but somehow the boot loader did not work for us. A couple of years ago, we spent a month on DBUS plus much time on the Linux kernel with USB. Qt sucked up plenty of paid time as well, so we were keen to get a clean system that we could use commercially without getting into the politics of twenty plus versions of Linux that don't seem to offer any clear advantages over each other, besides all having different installation packages!

 

Back to BSD Unix, and even there, you have three main distributions — FreeBSD, OpenBSD and NetBSD. It would be nice if they could merge. In April 2001, WindRiver caused a bit of an upset by acquiring BSDi, but by December, 2003, WindRiver bailed from the BSD/OS market. FreeBSD supposedly has the biggest marketshare in 2013 of the three BSD offerings. OpenBSD specialised in security, and NetBSD tries to run on everything from a toaster to a mainframe — which suites us. A quick download and ISO disk later, and we had the NetBSD amd64 port loaded and booting. The X server loads up with the same interface we used in 1993 for some tannery work, the kernel is clean and the file system does not ask for thousands of options. We will load up several disk drives and cluster a few other older AMD-64s for a test network for our Ethernet devices. We also hope the NetBSD gamble pays off when the ARM 64-bit SoCs eventually ship. The ARM A9 and A15 multi-cores are too fragmented to choose a platform, besides the ridiculous end-user prices compared to high-end PCs. On the embedded side, it's back to sub-200MHz ARM Cortex and real-time with the logging to standard BSD based PCs.


Tales from the Woods


Manufacturing Demise

Manufacturing in the developed world is hampered by tax structures, excessive compliance legislation, uncompetitive salaries compared to output, etc. Bad news for Australia from Ford, claims that costs in Australia are double those of Europe and four times those of Ford Asia. The report was on CNN, titled Australia: Losing 'know-how' economy?, by Monica Attard, 23rd May, 2013. Ford plan to pull out of Australia by Oct, 2016.

What the article did not mention was that in 2012, Ford lost $1,5 billion in Europe, or that the UK Ford Transit line would close due to excessive costs compared to Turkey. If the UK was too expensive, then the writing was on the wall for the Australian unions a while back. See Ford sheds 1,400 jobs as Debenhams announces 1,700 new retail posts in the Guardian, October, 25th, 2012.

We have been looking at getting a van for a while. The Renault Trafic looks nice, however, their parent in France is in trouble and spares cost a fortune here. The Ford Transit is beyond being reasonably priced. No wonder Toyota is doing so well at the expense of others, even though more expensive — outlets all over the place, spares etc.

Oil is responsible for some of the richest per capita countries and biggest corporations. How is it cheaper to import refined fuel into Australia when everyone in retail blames high prices on freight? Shell is seeking buyers for their Geelong refinery. In Shell jobs threatened under refinery sale plan, by Peter Ker, 5th April, 2013, The Age, mentions Australia's struggling refinery industry. At the price of petrol here, with large pricing variations within a day, we assume that there is a massive “Robbing Hood” tax if there is no profit in refining. The article blamed the high Aussie dollar, but if you are not exporting refined fuel, then how does that affect the price — it should favour local consumers. Adelaide's Mobil refinery closed down a while back.

Ford was also singled out for hundreds of job losses in Geelong last year, plus the Alcoa smelter at Port Henry looks like they have problems there as well.

 

What is the answer? We certainly do not know. “Tales from the Woods” are that if you dig a trench for power cables or similar, and it rains, to satisfy the environmental folk, the pH has to be measured before pumping it out (next to the trench, not even into a river). The future looks bright for pH inspectors, electrical cable tag testers (those companies have 4x4 Audis), or at $200k per annum for an OH&S Officer. We had telesales threats with the possibility of $500K fines for not having a written evacuation plan in place — we type to create software, and the PCs all weigh under 20kg. If there is a fire, we run in the opposite direction after grabbing the insurance policies. The little dragon is not scared of fires, and the receptionist four legged bitch will beat me to the door.

Retrenchment is a big problem as youngsters struggle to get permanent positions due to large companies skirting the issues. They have to, as Toyota reported that to retrench some of their older workers at their Altona plant would be close to $250k each! Imagine that for small companies.

Our only gripe about manufacturing is consequential damages, particularly in any litigious population. We have read parts of Consumer Law, but not being lawyers, it scares the hell out of us. Freight, markups, labour — things you can plan for — but electronics components do fail, so who can guarantee that an electronic product will not fail in an unpredictable way? Even the Mars probes and other well engineered projects have failed — there are no guarantees.

We do not support negligence, as with the Rana Plaza Building collapse causing over 1100 deaths in a clothing industry incident in April. This is particularly sad when the high-street shops push the prices back to levels they always charged for locally produced clothes from workers who enjoyed better working conditions. The public has at least become aware of conditions of workers in low-wage countries, as a quick Google search of “boycott clothing made in Bangladesh” shows. It is unlikely to really change much, money will always win. Boycotts of a country will only hurt the low-wage workers (some earn as little as $38 a month), not the high-street labels or retailers.

Thank goodness our company is only me, a dragon and a four legged receptionist bitch here. Sure we would all quit for $250k — Okay, the receptionist for much less!


Time to sell high-tech shares?

News from Computerworld on 17th May, claim HP plans massive layoff, with between 25,000 and 30,000 people. Not long ago, HP wrote off $8,8 billion over its Autonomy acquisition. See the Wall Street Journal article and another Q&A with Autonomy Founder for more details. That was November, 2012, almost a year after the $11,1 billion paid in October, 2011. Michael Lynch, the Founder of Autonomy had the following to say in the above Wall Street article — “We completely reject the allergations....I can't understand how you can write down $9 billion of value and say somehow this was all caused by something you didn't notice when you did due diligence with 300 people.” Autonomy's accounting company was Deloitte LLP, plus HP hired KPMG for an additional review brefore closing the deal. Later, working with PricewaterhouseCoopers, HP recreated Autonomy's books.

 

HP destroyed Autonomy in a year by petty infighting after Autonomy spent ten years as a public company building up the business according to the WSJ article. If you could inflate figures that well under the watchful eyes of Deloittes and KPMG, the bankers would rush to your side for tips or job offers. (Apparently, Autonomy only made $250 million profit when purchased). Looks like something is badly wrong in the high-tech sector as they continue to shed jobs of highly skilled people and create huge losses for shareholders. HP profits are down 32% in the second fiscal quarter, with PC sales falling 21%. — What did they expect after announcing their PC business exit and then trying to reverse out of it? HP previously wrote down the EDS ($13,9 billion acquisition in 2008 to $8 billion write down in 2012) and 2010 Palm acquisition for $1,2 billion. For those with longer retention spans, the snuffing of the DEC Alpha and 2002 Compaq acquisition for $25 billion was one of many (expensive) bad short-term moves aimed at appeasing Wall Street.