Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Meet Launchpad

TI MSP30 Launchpad
The Launchpad was created in the later half of 2010 to show case the MSP430G2xx ValueLine Microcontroller. The MSP430 -- a 16 bit, RISC architecture, 27 instruction set, integrated analog peripherals and ultra low power -- was looking at it's 25 year anniversary in the market. The processor, although considered mature in this Industry's time line (when products older than 2 years are considered  old news) was not only successfully thriving, but it's adoption was expanding. 

After all, when you look at the reason why it was created in the first place (to be a Mixed Signal Processor and do all of it's work using as little power as possible), the needs of it's initial creation are just as relevant if not more so today. After all, with the world we live in becoming more and more integrated with electronics-- there is a greater need to add processing (digital) to the real world (analog). Make the need for this to integrate as seamlessly with our lives as possible... and you get concerns as small size and portability. Size and Portability drive applications to have to run on batteries... and to run on them as long as possible, so the low power characteristic is in high demand. 
If I could pick a quote that really describes how the MSP430 team looks at the future it would be this one from Fred Wilcox.

Progress always involves risk; you can't steal second base and keep your foot on first."
— Frederick Wilcox

With ownership of the Ultra Low Power Market, a successful product line and a reasonably steady future demand... the MSP430 group had a choice. Either stay in status quo and do more of the same things that made the group successful in the past, or take a few risks and bets where the market would go. From that stance investments were made. Investments that would further the existing way they had been doing business, by winning with Ultra Low Power (FRAM was born) ... but then also looking at making investments to develop a new way of thinking about their  existing products... so the Value Line was created. 

The question was asked-- what new innovations and ideas could we enable if we gave the market a micro controller with power, performance and capability -- but we took away any excuse a customer would have to consider putting one in their system? What if we shook up the stereotypes that 8 bit processing and all of the hoops that you had to jump through to get an 8 bit processor to preform, plus gave the designers highly integrated analog components and made it run so low power... it was no additional tax on their system-- what could happen? Keep in mind, this was a risk on the MSP430 group's part... by putting out a "value line" of an existing product, they stood a chance at cannibalizing their own shipping business at the higher price points-- but the bet that the world could use more processing and the MSP430 was the right processor for it was compelling and overcame those concerns. 

TI makes semiconductors. We like to make them, we do it well... and it's my opinion that we do it the best (after all, how many of our competitors actually still own fabs, have a quarter of the product offering and run profitability like we do? ) Evaluation boards and Development boards... are a bit of a necessary evil. We need to have them for us to get our chips into the market. 

Providing evaluation/development boards is really an art form. It requires a special blend of knowing the chip's abilities, what is required to interact with it and who your potential users will be. Since the Value Line was being released as an experiment for- where can the market find use for adding mixed signal processing to their applications-- the last characteristic, arguably always the most difficult, was a bit nebulous. Despite that, the development board for the Value Line device-- was born and called the MSP430 Launchpad. 

The Launchpad was designed with five key factors in mind:
  • To remove any business objection from any engineer to try out MSP430. 
  • To have all of the necessary tools needed to evaluate the chip, in one place and make it as easy as possible to see the capabilities and understand the value proposition for MSP430.
  • To give a path to expansion into either larger capability chips or to more fully featured options.
  • To keep the chip and the platform "production ready" , that with any design-- there would as little as possible holding the design back from becoming a product. 
  • To open the door to the possibilities of using MSP430 and serve as inspiration for the designer to try out new ideas.

The primary audience? Existing Engineers. Engineers that knew how to already program, or were close to it. Engineers who had been using 8 bit micro controllers because of cost... Engineers that never had a compelling reason to try a microcontroller out.

In the box- the Launchpad had all the necessary hardware required to interact with it.
 Onboard power, debug and Emulation over USB-- All the required hardware needed.
An extra DIP Microcontroller (a package brought back to enable prototyping )
Header pins for expansion abilities
A free version of our shipping Industry IDE: Code Composer Studio
External crystals
an extra Microcontroller (in case you needed to change it out). 
Simple push button I/O
All the information to getting started printed in the box and in the "Getting Started". 
Two stickers  (borrowed idea , but to promote Branding). 
... and including shipping--- all for less money you would spend at Starbucks: $4.30

Prior to the Lauchpad, there was no other semiconductor manufacturer dared to go that low. To offer that type of performance and features was unheard of... and compelling. With so many of the standard objections removed-- there was almost no reason why an existing engineer shouldn't try out the MSP430 Launchpad. It's success was immediate.  Within the first 3 weeks of it's launch all of the channels had sold out... and the backlog carried TI well into the next few quarters. 

As the launchpad stayed in the market longer, the $4.30 price tag wasn't as exciting as it had been at release. It was hard to get engineers who didn't have a strong programming background to understand the value of such a tool. After all, a micro controller on it's own-- doesn't show off a great deal. It's when the micro controller is part of a larger system-- that the value is demonstrated. 

Approximately 1 year later, the Capacitive Touch Boosterpack was released. 

created to give the MSP430 a different more interactive way to show off it's abilities-- Boosterpacks were made to give add-on functionality. The original launchpad didn't have the header pins soldered down (Version 1.4), but with the popularity of the capacitive touch booster pack and the development of several other application booster packs-- the feedback was users didn't particularly want to solder header pins down and would prefer the launchpad to ship with the header pins already done. 

The CapTouch Boosterpack was the first booster pack and shipped with pre-flashed program of the demo so the user could get an out of the box experience immediately. No programming was required with the hope the tit would be enough to pique the user's curiosity to try programming the application themselves.  However, it wasn't until the evolution of the Boosterpack system in to the Boosterpack Eco-System that the MSP430 Launchpad stepped solidly into the hobbyist world. 

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