Have you been to Radioshack lately ? You might have needed a part for that last moment project, of course you could buy it online but you need it NOW! So you finally decide to step into that quiet long forgotten Radioshack store. You walk in and you see cell phones , batteries , chargers , computer accessories, more cell phones ! , and finally in the back, here they are , on the dusty shelves some electronics parts. In an uninviting metal drawer cabinet you see them nicely marked by category, you look around , is it safe to look inside ? or should I call the clerk , "Naaaah he probably has no clue", is it locked ? will the alarm sound if I open it ? You finally gather the courage to look inside , and you feel like an explorer opening the cabins of Titanic, here is a transistor, a voltage regulator , a kit of resistors – "I might need it", a proto-board – "Nice!". You finally grabbed a cart of parts, although you didn't find what you were looking for in first place, you're little disappointed. You're finally heading to the register, not without stopping to observe the Radioshack branded multimeters and charges – and the whole place still feels just like a museum . The clerk was getting nervous already, you didn't even notice that an hour has passed. Now he is scanning your parts, he looks scared, half of the things he is scanning look dangerous to him, "this guy is up to something dangerous, we are dooooomed !". Oh no , now he is asking your address , is he going to call the cops ? :)
If you found yourself in this funny situation you're not alone, the truth is that at this time there are no serious retail stores for the electronics hobbyist, however there's a booming market ! Due to the current economic environment I doubt that someone would venture to open a nation-wide retail chain like the one Radioshack has, this being the reason I decided to write an open letter to the company. You might not like the Radioshack company but the truth is that we need them and they need us !
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I can't help myself but notice that more and more electronics giants are starting to realize that hobby electronics is becoming a serious business !
Newark has just launched their new hobbyist / maker oriented web site www.element14.com as well as their own video blog persona Ben Heck. When I first saw Ben I thought "I didn't know Conan O'Brian is into electronics. Wait that's not Conan !". Just like David L. Jones from EEVBlog , Ben likes to take things apart even before turning them on. I enjoyed very much his X-Box tear down and custom foot controlled XBox controller and I am looking forward to seeing more videos like this.
Jameco has teamed up with Make Magazine 's Collin Cunningham and forged a series of video tutorials aimed towards electronics beginners. And yes they finally carry Arduino in stock !
In the same spirit , Texas Instruments launched few months ago a subsidized development platform MSP430 LaunchPad trying to win the hearts of all those Microchip PIC and Atmel AVR fanboys out there. But word along the benches is that it ain't gonna happen unless they make it Arduino shield pin compatible :).
Old news already – but ST tried a similar move with their STM8S-Discovery kit , not sure how many people they converted but it's interesting to see some competition going on for this hobbyist / maker , no-longer-niche market.
Adafruit and Sparkfun are two wonderful pioneer companies that showed to the world that [title of this post] = TRUE ! They started from zero and reached millions of dollars in sales in just few years. A good example that if you like what you're doing and you are passionate about it – you're going to go a long way.
Overall my feeling is that we are witnessing a new boom right now. Robotics and Electronics is for 2010's what Internet was for 2000's and personal computers for 1990's. For all those still in doubt , or who haven't send their college applications yet – this is THE FIELD to work in the next decade ! A lot of wonderful things are just waiting to happen ! Stay tuned and enjoy the ride.