Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Free software EDA tools

At last I've decided to learn how to use free software EDA tools in order to design a controller board to my pinball machine. I spent some time reading tutorials on gschem and pcb (tools of the gEDA suite) and I have had some very basic issues with these tools, which makes me believe that very few people are actually using them. Then I entered the #geda irc channel at freenode to ask for some help.
My first surprise was that freenode redirects from #geda to ##pcb, with the following welcome message:
"The topic for ##pcb is: Support and discussion for PCB design and prototyping:- CAD tools, Eagle, KiCad, FreePCB, gEDA, Board layout and fabrication techniques. Please keep it polite, reasonable, constructive. | news news news: eagle non-profit now does 6 layers"

This has annoyed me. This probably means that somebody decided that communities should be merged regardless of the tools being free or non-free software. By this welcome message and also based on some conversation I've had in this irc channel I noticed that there is a strong bias towards usage of Eagle, a proprietary tool. And I also noticed that the free tools are not used much because they are often considered technically inferior. Well... without users I think it is harder to make a tool better.

One of my concerns is that, if Eagle community is strong and gEDA community is weak, then putting them together in the same irc channel has the effect of not allowing gEDA to grow at all. I think that it is important for a community to have its own irc channel even if it's only gonna have 2 or 3 people hanging there.

Off course there are other places to form communities around, such as mailing lists. But what I am really concerned is about this general trend of simply using Eagle for designing circuits and, more generally, about the consequences of the existence and popularity of such gratis/non-free tools that run on GNU/Linux, regarding the development of their free alternatives.

Given that there is a lot of people trying to stretch the free software movement ideas towards hardware development, why don't they use the free tools at all? Perhaps these people are not really talking about freedom...

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