Monday, February 23, 2015

Why Open Source Has Not Taken Over EDA


We all know that in the world of general software Open Source has all but won. Linux is everywhere. Nearly all programming languages are Open Source (meaning their compilers/interpreters). IDE's, build tools, revision control, syntax highlighters, refactoring tools, you name it, if it's a development tool it's Open Source. Major infrastructure is Open Source too. I mentioned the Linux operating system, but all the major applications are Open Source too: web servers, databases, queueing systems, messaging systems, load balancing, caching systems, GUI frameworks, encryption, authentication, email servers, instant messaging servers, blog engines, you name it.

In the world of Electronic Design Automation (EDA), Open Source has not won. We do now develop on Linux and we use a lot of ancillary tools from the software world that are Open Source such as scripting languages, text editors, databases, web frameworks, build systems, and so forth, but our core tools are still very much closed source and commercial, namely simulation and synthesis tools.

Why haven't those tools followed the same trend that the general software world has seen? Why don't we have a solid Open Source simulator that every one in the industry rallies around, similar to the way gcc is the defacto standard C compiler? Every time I have posed this question there are a few answers that always come up. One is that our industry is small. There are far more software developers, the argument goes, and so the likelihood of a Linus Torvalds or Richard Stallman like leader emerging is small. Another answer is that we aren't software developers. Our primary skill is designing circuits, not software, therefore we just don't have the skills or drive to write our own tools like software developers have done.

While the logic in those answers seems sound, I don't believe they are the primary reason we still lack quality Open Source tools. There have been hobbyists like Linus and RMS that have started Open Source EDA tool projects that are probably at least as functional and easy to use as early versions of Linux or gcc were, but people just haven't flocked to them. Yes, the number of EDA people that are capable of writing a synthesis tool is small, but how many software developers really have the chops to write operating systems or compilers? Also not very many. There are far more consumers than producers of general Open Source software. I don't believe that's the reason there isn't any successful Open Source EDA tools.

I believe the real reason we don't have Open Source tools is because we haven't had an oppressive monopoly in EDA like Microsoft was in its day. Microsoft was so good at locking people in to their proprietary tools and crushing competition that the only answer was to not play their game. You had two choices, go the Microsoft route or go Open Source. We in the EDA world, on the other hand, actually have a (somewhat) functioning capitalist software economy. There are three (three! not just two like Coke and Pepsi) big EDA companies that sell competing software (these companies are lovingly referred to as, "the big three"). Unlike the days of Microsoft, these companies actually have to listen to their customers[1] and compete on the merits and price of their products[2]. Since we have been able to play the big three against each other and generally get at least the bare minimum of what we need, there hasn't been a strong need for a linux or gcc like project to set us free.

Hooray for capitalism! Yet somehow I'm not satisfied. I am very pro capitalism in general, don't get me wrong. I think my dissatisfaction comes from the fact that I am even more pro freedom, and EDA tools are not Free. They are not Open Source. I'm not free to dig into the code if I desire to. I'm not even free to use the tools as I chose. They are offered under onerous license agreements that don't even allow us to publish performance numbers or talk about their costs publicly[3]. When they don't perform or I encounter bugs, my only recourse is beg for mercy from the vendor or embark on the onerous task of switching vendors (just because it's possible doesn't mean it's easy). If it were open source there would be mailing lists and forums where not just the vendors customer support people participated, but other tool users and the tool developers themselves would be available to collaborate with on solutions.

This would sound like an outrageous and silly utopian dream if it wasn't already working in the software world. It's not just young single dudes living in their parents basement or slumming it in graduate cubicles at MIT anymore either. Red Hat Software is a publicly traded company making 11% profit margin on about $1.8 billion in revenue, which puts it right in among the Big Three. There are plenty of other businesses that make real profits doing various combinations of producing, supporting, and providing services based on Open Source software. It can be done. In fact I'm pretty sure if one of the Big Three even released just their simulator as Open Source they would quickly grab all of the market share for simulators and a whole lot of new customers for their other tools. They would also make the world a much better place for all of EDA.

Footnotes

1. Well, at least their biggest customers.

2. Well, not publicly, because their license agreements don't allow us to publish their tools' merits or prices.

3. See footnote above.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bitcoin vs. Credit Cards

Stripe announced bitcoin support.  There has been much discussion on hacker news about it.  Lots of people are not seeing the benefits of bitcoin over credit cards for individual shoppers. They talk about the fraud protection that credit cards provide them as customers and the 1% or whatever cash back they get on each purchase from the credit card companies that they would be giving up.  I don't think they fully understand the trade-offs here.

First of all, the cash back.  Credit card companies are charging merchants a percentage of each transaction larger than the 1% whatever they are giving you back (how else do they stay in business?).  What people may be forgetting is that retailers are not just eating that percentage cost that the credit cards are charging them.  They are most definitely passing that cost on to all of us consumers in the form of higher prices.  If enough transactions happened with bitcoin that would lower prices for all of us.  Merchants could also offer a cash/bitcoin discount.

Next is the fraud protection.  There are two kinds of fraud protection that the credit card companies provide.  The first kind is if if someone steals my credit card and starts making charges that I didn't authorize.  The credit card companies protect me from the fraudulent charges the thief makes.  Hopefully we all realize that if it weren't for the credit card in the first place this kind of fraud wouldn't be possible.  If Target, for example, hadn't had a bunch of their customers' credit card information stored on their servers when they got hacked their customers wouldn't have needed this kind of protection.

The thing to understand here is that paying with a credit card is a pull operation and paying with bitcoin is a push operation.  To pay a merchant I have to give them my credit card information and they pull money from my card.  Anyone that has that information can pull money from my card, making this kind of fraud easy.  With bitcoin a merchant gives me their bitcoin address and I send (push) bitcoin to them.  I don't have to fork over any sensitive information. The merchant is safe too, by the way, because that bitcoin address they gave me cannot be used to withdraw funds from them, only to give them funds.

Another cost of this kind of fraud protection that I discovered recently is that once it is discovered that someone has stolen your credit card information you lose the use of that credit card until a new one can be issued.  That can take up to two weeks.  Over this last Christmas both of my credit cards were cancelled due to fraud.  I was leaving on a trip soon and didn't have a credit card to take with me.  I really didn't like the idea of carrying a bunch of cash around on a trip instead of a credit card (fortunately I still had a debit card).

The other kind of fraud protection that credit cards provide is chargebacks.  If someone doesn't give me the thing I thought I had paid for with my credit card I can essentially take my money back by asking the credit card company for a chargeback.  You can't do this with bitcoin because it works like cash.  Once the bitcoin leaves your hand (so to speak) you don't have any control over it anymore.  The think to keep in mind again is, this fraud protection does not come for free.  Those fees I already talked about are partly there to pay for this[1].  Now think about it, how often are you required to resort to using a chargeback?  I personally have never needed to.  I have had disputes with merchants where I thought I might need to, but I have always been able to resolve the problem by talking things out with them.  Merchants are very motivated to protect their reputation and their relationship with their customers.  Since this is the case, why are we all paying for the ability to request a chargeback with every transaction?  Could I say to Visa when buying from someone I trust such as Amazon, "hey, I don't want to pay for chargeback protection for this purchase?"  The answer, unfortunately, is no.

I do understand that there will be times when buyers will want or even need chargeback protection.  You could simply use your credit card for times like that, but could we ever get chargeback fraud protection on a purchase made with bitcoin?  I don't personally know of an easy way to do that right now, but escrow services have existed since before credit cards were invented precisely for this reason.  Escrow services could easily work with bitcoin.

I titled this "Bitcoin vs. Credit Cards" but I'm not trying to say that There Can Only Be One.  More options is better.  I see a lot of people dismissing bitcoin out of hand due to misunderstandings about the costs and benefits of bitcoin when compared to other forms of moving money around.  Hopefully this helps clear things up for a few people.

Footnote:

1. Another costly thing about chargebacks is people can use them to defraud merchants. They can ask for a chargeback even when the merchant did deliver the thing they promised.  This is another cost the merchant bears when accepting credit cards.  A cost that, surprise, gets passed back to you as a customer.