Upverter: You Don't Have To Be Open, But You Do Need To Be Good.

Posted by: Dave Vandenbout 6 years ago

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Upverter is a website/service that allows people to collaborate on hardware designs. It looks like they've got some VC funding and they're pitching themselves to the OSHW community as the place to store their designs.

A DangerousPrototypes blog post called Upverter a "closed source vampire" for trying to profit from the OSHW community while still keeping their web-based tools closed. Kinda harsh. Without knowing the Upverter people's true intentions, I can't say if it's true or not. Regardless, I don't care. I'm a pragmatist and I'll use anything that's effective - open or closed - to get my design done.

It's on that score that I have a problem with Upverter. After creating an account and using their tool, I would assess them to be at the level of an alpha version. Here's what I experienced during my design session:

  • The schematic editor has a few simple commands for placing parts from a library, adding single-wire connections, moving/rotating parts, adding annotations and panning the schematic. I couldn't find any tools for drawing buses or making non-contiguous nets with terminals (i.e., all wires had to be continuous from their source pin to their destination pin). You can stick comments on the schematic page and add annotations to a part, but I don't know if these have any function other than for documentation.
  • Placing a part requires calling up a floating menu of all the parts and there is some noticeable delay before it appears. There doesn't appear to be any hierarchy or order to the part list, nor does it list everything in the library. (I went through the library web pages and there appear to be around 1800 parts - a lot of which are resistors and capacitors - but only 40 parts appear in the menu.) When adding a part, there is a link to its datasheet (which is nice) but I couldn't find a way to get to the datasheet once the part was placed in the schematic (which is not so nice).
  • I placed four 0.56K resistors. Then I changed one of the resistor values to 0.64K. When I generated the BOM, it showed four 0.56K resistors and the 0.64K resistor was missing. Not too good if I go to order parts.
  • I placed both an ATMega and a PIC microcontroller. The ATMega just had pins labeled with numbers, while the PIC had labels with the various functions of each pin. So some of the library parts are more complete than others. On a separate page of the website, you can create new parts and edit existing parts. I'm not sure if my edits of the ATMega part were local to my account, but if it went into the global library then I want to apologize! I also couldn't find how to update my schematic to show the changes in the edited part.
  • I tried to place an NAND gate, but all I could find was a 14-pin 7400 part. There doesn't appear to be any way to place individual gates in a multi-gate part.
  • The schematic is versioned as you change it. They have a "timeline" feature on the project page where you can click and see the schematic as it existed at any given time. That's neat, but there's no labeling on the timeline so it would be hard to tell someone else where to click to see a particular version.
  • I know that one of Upverter's main goals is to foster collaboration, and a web-based schematic editor that allows one or more people to edit a schematic while everyone can see the changes in real-time would be pretty neat. But I didn't have anyone to try this with so I can't give you an opinion on their collaboration features.
  • There's no PCB layout editor to go with the schematic editor, so you can't actually build what you've designed. That's like taking a girl out and then going home right after dinner before all the good stuff happens.

All-in all, you'll find the Upverter schematic editor to be like a stripped-down version of the editor in Linear Tech's LTspice. You can get the job done, but it's not ready for prime time, yet. And the most important feature of an editor is that it be powerful and easy to use. Collaboration comes after that. (There are a lot of Twitter comments about how cool Upverter is and how powerful it is for letting OSHW people collaborate on designs in the cloud. Have these people even used Upverter?! Have they ever done a hardware design?)

But I don't want to beat up Upverter; they've just started and it takes a lot of work/time to build a good editor. (Look at Eagle: they've been working on it for years and people still harangue them about their odd UI.) But that brings us back to openess. Currently, Upverter has seven employees and a ton of work just to get their schematic editor in a usable state, not to mention building a PCB editor (which is a lot harder). I'm not saying that they should open-source their code, but they should make their file formats open and/or provide an API so that their customers can build tools (web or client-based) to fix or extend the features of Upverter. That would magnify the capabilities of the Upverter staff. It's sort of like what Eagle does: they have a closed-source program but anyone can create User Language Programs to add new features independently of the E14 programmers. In my opinion, that's the most useful feature of Eagle.

Open file formats are important for another reason: I may want to get my design out of Upverter. They state on their website that I own my designs and data, not them, and they won't lock me in to their service. But that's an empty promise if I can't export my design files or understand their format. (Maybe they already have this feature. If so, I couldn't find it.)

So, in summary:

  • Closed source: No big deal.
  • Primitive tools: That's a big deal.
  • Open file formats/API: Necessary for quickly improving the tools to a usable state and for providing assurance that user designs aren't stuck in the Upverter system with no migration path to anything else.

The Upverter tool is too primitive for me to use right now, but I will keep an eye on them to see how their service evolves and what kind of community forms around it.

Current rating: 5


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