(mis)adventure in the so-called maker so-called space

In principle the "maker" movement -- where people use soldering irons and actually learn how their devices work -- should be applauded. In practice it's still dependent on unscrupulous component manufacturers and/or exploited foreign workers.

Let's say you own a digital synth module that uses an Arduino board and you want to update the firmware. To communicate with the Arduino from your Mac or Windows PC you buy a serial-to-USB device from the synth module company -- cheap at under $10. The company recommends that you download a driver from FTDI, the Scottish company that makes the chip affixed to the serial-to-USB. You install the driver, plug the device into a USB port, and check to see if the PC recognizes the device. Yes, there it is, with serial no. 00000000. The eight zeroes means the driver has determined that the chip is a counterfeit FTDI chip, and will not send data to the device.

You go online and learn that (i) there are more fake FTDI chips for serial-to-USBs on the market (eBay, Amazon, etc) than real chips and (ii) there is no way to tell which chips are fake other than to buy the devices and let the driver determine whether they will pass muster.

Why would FTDI cause devices that they don't manufacture, but that incorporate their products, to become unusable? Apparently the profusion of fake chips from dishonest factories in China challenges their business model, so they are fighting back by punishing innocent third party consumers with clever software that acts as judge and jury for the intellectual purity of all chips (previous versions of this software "bricked" the offending device -- now it just doesn't speak to it). Some makers are outraged and have found other chip sources, but they don't say where they are getting their serial-to-USB devices, which are not made by FTDI. Some are finding "real" FTDI chips, de-soldering and removing the fake ones from the serial-to-USB devices, and soldering on the FTDI chip (a cumbersome and error-prone process considering the device is a $10 component).

Ultimately makers and their noble intentions smack up against unregulated grifters in the country where most electronics are made, and DRM-users in the Anglosphere who treat third party customers as collateral damage. (cue violins)