EDA Primer

What just happened? Where am I? Who are you? What year is this? Where’s my wallet?!?!

Haha. Don’t worry. I’m not here to lecture, and certainly not to try and choke enterprise propaganda down your throat. But for those of you hackers that have a non-electronics day job, I wanted to give a little public service announcement. I wanted to try and explain one of the reasons that I believe your life building electronics is so hard, and that starts in the land of electronic design automation otherwise known as EDA.

The hypothesis I’m going on is as follows. You  as students, hackers and hobbyists are seen in one of 3 ways, and the way you are seen determines the software people have built for you and the services you receive. The 3 ways are as follows:

  • Basement People: a miserable small market that can’t afford the tools or infrastructure marketed at enterprise customers. You probably just have a pirated version in your basement anyways. You have never built a board, and if you ever did you would probably only build one piece.
  • Unconnected: you have no contacts with manufacturers, suppliers, or even many like minded people. You are isolated and venerable. You get excited by any scraps thrown your way and would gladly get locked into software just to have a little help getting your project built in the end.
  • A Peer: you are also an artist, hacker, or software guy. We aren’t very good at building software, and its realistically our 3rd or 4th priority by the time we have worked, been with our family and tidied the house. But we need better tools, we need a community, and working together we might get there.

The enterprise players like Cadence and Synopsys live in the first category. They have multi thousand dollar tools that can only be installed and licensed across large organizations. For lots of obvious reasons their focus has always been on the customers with the most licensed seats (yes, licensing is still to this day done on a workstation basis, not by user, or by project, or by team, or by something that makes any sense). Which means they build even bigger packages, with tons more features only applicable to the Ciscos, Apples, and Intels of the world. As basement people you will never be easy to sell to (who pays my commission, how do we licence it, what do you mean you dont have revenue?). And more so, you dont look like anything that has ever given them money before (they get a little more than 4.6 billion dollars a year from customers with product lines and marketing glossies). They can’t innovate anymore either, they moved most of their focus to silicon, and most of their “new” tech comes from acquisitions. They are going to ignore you until someone figures out how to serve you, and either lose the game, or just try to buy whoever figures it out.

The second category of EDA players are the manufacturers or distributors that wanted a new angle to selling their merchandise. Farnell bought Eagle, RS has design spark, and Sunsoft has PCB123. The whole point of these offerings is to alleviate a pain point for isolated users, in exchange for improving their deal flow. But they aren’t software companies. They aren’t even hardware companies. They are merchants. Its like Walmart cornering the Playstation market by buying the game developers. It looks nice on the cover, but they are betrayed by their intentions. They will never build good software both because it isn’t their core business, and because they know nothing about software.

The third category is you guys. Its what you have built for yourself. Its things like gEDA and Fritzing. They are great projects. The community loves and supports them, not least of all because they built them. But they will unfortunately only ever be as good as the focus they get. They are projects with little funding, no full time developers, and often again being built by non-software people. In a lot of ways they inspired us to do what we are doing with Upverter. Any community that comes together enough to try and solve their own problems like this is a community that will flourish given the success of one of their projects or an equal alternative.

So what? Well there aren’t any good numbers on this and we spend a lot of time trying to make our numbers better, but there are probably less than 3 million electronics professionals that pay for tools in the world (p.s. thats a pretty small number). The majority of these users are actually smaller shops like the Allerta guys, the Anybots, and the Chumbys. So maybe 300K super high end $10K+ tool users, 700K @ $5K, and 2MM @ $300. Which is to say most of the paying users dont want much more than you hobbyists do, but they look like a much smaller price tag than the super high end users. And besides my sales team has to close the big deals to justify the fancy suits…

So how many electronics hobbyists are there? We have no idea. our best guess is its in the 10’s of Millions We think at least 2% of North America hacks electronics, and at least 4% of the UK, but out side of some rough guessing on top of that we have no idea. And to answer your question before you ask it (why has no one tried to serve them before?!?!), its because of scale. No one serves you all because of scale. There is no way to undercut a $10K software product for hobbysits. No one knows how to sell to 10MM people. And until recently there was no way to even licence to 10MM+. And especially no easy way to mail that many CDs for free. You can also be pretty sure that the big guys don’t understand the internet and that 10MM isolated users is not a lot better than the current situation. Its because of scale, because the business models are old, becuase you don’t look like big numbers.

We see it differently. We hate the tools to. We wish it was all so much easier. We are tying to make it better, fix the tools, fix the model. But next time you are lamenting the state of the ecosystem maybe this will help shed some light on the reasons.

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