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Morfik and Altium
I’m Nick Martin – I’m the guy who started Altium (known then as Protel) some 25 years ago.
I would like to share some of my thoughts on the whole Altium + Morfik equation, why we are doing this, what we are trying to achieve here and how this might all pan out.
As some of you now know, Morfik and Altium share a deep common heritage. This is based on the friendship and collaboration between Aram Mirkazemi and myself that dates back to the early days of Protel and before.
The intertwined nature of the development of technology and the explosion of infrastructure of the Internet, has been a spectacle that we have both been fascinated with for many years. Its clear now that this is the foundation of the next step for the evolution of our global society and we are seeing this unfold before us.
The rise of the Internet, the more recent cloud and mobile computing waves, and the recent focus on “The Internet of Things” are signs that a new inflection point is on its way.
In April last year we published a white paper to discuss the impact of this on the electronics device space : What’s next for electronics devices?
Although this paper is already somewhat out of date (18 months seems like a long time at Internet speed), the fundamental concepts discussed here are still valid. This is about how the next generation of electronics devices needs to be seen as the foundation for building ecosystems rather than as standalone products.
For those who design today’s devices this is a serious issue. There is every likelihood that the design of standalone devices is going to become a commodity business.
Likewise on the development of software applications, standalone applications are becoming less interesting over time as customers start to recognize them as specialized portals into communities of collaboration – either within the organization or beyond.
At Altium we have been working in this area for some time (the process dates back well before the whitepaper). The foundation for web-applications that we have built as the back-end for Altium Designer, have been built using Morfik tools and technology.
To put this ‘joining of forces’ into context I would like to share a bit of the history of Altium with you, give you some view into what we are striving for and hopefully provide some insight into how we see Morfik fitting into this future.
The development of Altium has been forged around a series of inflection points over the last 25 years. These represent the points in the timeline where significant change has allowed us to move to a different level.
The first of these was the birth of Altium, as Protel, in 1985. We were one of the very early companies to release CAD software on the PC. The opportunity to do this was based on the PC hardware’s performance/price ratio climbing to a level that a useful solution could be provided at a cost that would work for many people.
As I remember it, this became interesting when PCs reach the level of CGA graphics (320 x 200 pixel, 4-color display), 6MHz Processor, 256K Memory and a 10MB hard-disk. All for less than $3K. The other key for me was that Borland’s Turbo Pascal was available on MS-DOS, at a very low cost.
As it turned out, there were many people like me, who were doing PCB design using stick-down tapes on vellum. For all of us, any low-cost CAD solution was a “better way” than this and so was pretty attractive. Based on this, Protel flourished in its own small way over the next few years.
The next inflection point for us was Microsoft’s release of Windows 3.0 in 1989 on the PC.
Many people forget (or may not know) that Microsoft had been working on Windows for many years (9 years I think) before 3.0 arrived. Before version 3.0 was released, Microsoft Windows was available as a separate application that you ran under DOS. It was primarily sold as an OEM product, bundled with specific applications. PageMaker for example, the popular desktop publishing application of the time, came with an OEM version of Windows 2.
The development of the PC to a new level (386 processors and true virtual memory), the release of Windows 3.0 (with the inclusion of support for the 386 mode) and the availability of Excel, Word for Windows and a handful of other professional level applications, all came together at that release point in 1989.
The Tsunami of change that this unleashed is still difficult to get one’s head around. The software industry we see today, with the many multi-billion dollar companies, was really born out of this time.
The idea that this was driven by one single event is almost certainly missing the point. As with most changes of this scale, it’s the effect of the intersection of many smaller changes, some with very long development lifecycles, coming together at the right point in time, that drives the outcome.
From our point of view, a couple of other key events, coming around the same time, were also significant. In 1990 we were still using Turbo Pascal and were working on a major new version of our DOS-based software (code-named Gemini) that would replace our existing DOS-based package (Autotrax) that was our primary revenue generator.
In early 1991 I was fortunate enough to see the first version of Turbo Pascal for Windows. This came with an application framework called Object Windows which made it very easy to create a multi-document applications in Windows. Immediately hooked on what I saw, we set about porting Gemini to become “Protel for Windows” the first real Windows-based PCB design tool. This was released in late 1991 and was the product that put Protel on the Map.
Unified Electronics Design
Over the next few years we developed our tools into a powerful and low cost suite. But by the mid 1990’s we had recognized that the complexity of electronics design, with all of its specialized sub-disciplines, was in need of a major upgrade in its approach. We started work on building a system that would unify these disparate domains of design and allow a more holistic approach to the design process.
In 1998, what we saw in the emerging hardware technologies led us to believe that this process needed to be extended to include the embedded software development process, along with the development support for the rapidly emerging programmable hardware technology.
This required a major step-up for us as a company and led us to our IPO in 1999. As a result of this we were able to acquire a number of core software technologies that would become key building blocks of the next generation of our products. Released as DXP (Design Explorer) this has moved on to become Altium Designer, our flagship product today.
Although Altium Designer is a strong product today and successfully brings together the many disparate domains of electronics design under a single unified data model, this is really just the next stage. The Internet provides the key.
Morfik and Altium
With Morfik Version 3 and Altium Designer Release 10, both companies have reached their next inflection point. At this point we have chosen to join forces to pursue the next stage. We believe that together Altium and Morfik can empower those who choose to develop the device-based ecosystems that will be needed.
The three pillars of this are:
- Device Design – Designing smart connected devices that make up the physical structure of the ecosystem. PCs, Servers and “Application Specific” devices. This is the traditional business of Altium.
- Cloud/Web Application Design – The Web-Apps that will run across the “Sea of Devices”. This is the business of Morfik.
- Infrastructure – the Internet-based resources that the devices and web-applications run on. This is new for the Internet era, but is becoming available on an industrial scale from people like Amazon.
The second of these three pillars is where Morfik and Altium intersect – The development of web-based applications.
Morfik is clearly the provider of the technology for web-applications. Although this has been historically focused on serving solutions to browsers in PCs, with Morfik 3 this has moved to more direct support for iPads and iPhones. These are still general purpose personal computers but they are the first step in moving beyond the PC-based browser.
The community of expertise that has developed around Morfik and its technology is a precious resource for this undertaking. We see the Morfik customer base today (something that we would like to see grow significantly) as an important starting point for the evolution of a community of web-application developers who can develop the web-applications that are an important part of these future ecosystems.
As a technology that provides a true object-oriented software-engineered approach to web-app development, Morfik is unique in the world. Engineering these ecosystems is not something that will be accomplished by the script-based approaches so common in the web-world today. It will take real software engineers and real software engineering to build these.
For those who see Morfik as a way to develop their own PC-based web-apps today (most Morfik customers today), we would hope you will stick around and work with us as we undertake the next stage of this journey. At the very least you will be able to benefit from the work we intend to do – work which we hope will take Morfik’s web-application development model to the next level.
And for those who are keen to be part of this next stage, designing web-applications that power these ecosystems, I hope that you find the prospects for the future as exciting as we do.