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Man on a mission

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Peng Choo has a dream. He dreams that one day soon, almost anyone (even school children) will be able to program microchips. But this is not an idle fantasy. Choo’s Adelaide-based company, eLabtronics, has the technology to make it a reality. And the IT industry is nervous.

 

Peng Choo’s energy is infectious. It’s the kind of enthusiasm that apprehends an audience; wraps them up and carries them along with tidal certainty. It’s true, he has the potential to be something of a pest – but only if you get in his way.

Choo is CEO of eLabtronics, the South Australian company behind CoreChart, a graphical software program that simplifies the programming of microchips.

CoreChart is a disruptive innovation, in the truest sense of the term. And, like many disruptive technologies, it is not without its critics. In fact, Choo believes the company is being undermined by vested interests.

"Professionals who can program using C language have spent a number of years at university and usually earn hundreds of dollars per hour," says Choo. "CoreChart suddenly comes along with the ability to dramatically lower the entry threshold for programming microchips. Why would you want to cut your own throat by supporting something that is going to diminish your market value? But, whether Australia likes it or not, CoreChart will have hundreds of millions of users worldwide."

To understand the significance of eLabtronics’s innovation, a basic understanding of how microchips are programmed is required.

All microchips are programmed in machine (or assembly) language, a system of instructions and data directly understandable by a computer’s central processing unit. Machine language is the native and most powerful coding language, but is so complex and takes so long to master that only a small proportion of industry professionals work with it.

The next layer of simplification, called "C" language, is the most commonly used programming language for writing system software. Its great strength compared with assembly language is that it generates only a few machine language instructions for each of its core language elements. Imagine being able to communicate an entire sentence with one word. Or a complicated line of code with a single symbol. This means that C language is more accessible to a greater number of programmers, but less powerful.

According to Choo, the great selling point of CoreChart is that it uses the simplicity of a graphical interface to program directly into machine language. In short, it delivers the power and complexity of high level microchip programming in a way that even high school students can find accessible.

SWIMMING UPSTREAM

CoreChart was originally developed and patented in 2001. Since that time, eLabtronics has won accolades at the World Congress on IT (Adelaide, February 2002) and the Secrets of IT Innovation competition (December 2005). It has also won significant validation through various government grants and support from the likes of Tenex Defence Systems and the Arizona-based MicroChip Technology, which has produced over five billion microchips over the past 12 years and endorsed CoreChart as its third party programming language in 2005. In addition, CoreChart is involved in the annual FIRST student robotics competition in Texas, which has the backing of Carnegie Mellon University.

Yet, despite these bona fides, neither eLabtronics nor CoreChart are household names. The charge that large IT firms, associations and their commercial and political backers are actively undermining CoreChart in order to preserve a favourable industry status quo is a bold one. But while Choo doesn’t present any concrete evidence to back his claim, the logic is not implausible.

The IT representatives contacted for this article were either not available or not willing to comment on the record. However, an industry contact told me that many professional programmers are not impressed with CoreChart, particularly those au fait with C language programming.

"They might be worried about their livelihoods and professional standing," he said, "but they are also not inclined to appreciate, technically, the simplicity of something that enables many people to do what, for so long, only they and their mates could do. It’s basic elitism."

An internet chat room (at www.chiefdelphi.com/forums) reveals a good cross section of what microchip programmers and students think (or at least say) about CoreChart.

"John Smith" from Melbourne was displeased. "EVERYONE I know completely hates the software – it is total garbage!"

Many others have expended great effort to attack CoreChart, loading their posts with highly technical refutations, peppered with sardonic barbs. There is even a parody website called eCraptronics, which goes to elaborate lengths to belittle everything eLabtronics. Such a concerted effort to blackball a new technology does sound extreme, even in an industry as opinionated and competitive as programming.

Yet others who seem less entrenched are more sanguine.

In the same chat room thread, "Rickertsen" from Atlanta writes: "My first reaction to this software was that I felt threatened by it. It looked to me like something out of lego mindstorms (another graphical programming application). Now that I have learned a bit more about it, it doesn’t seem like a whole lot more than a graphical assembler, which is kinda nifty in my opinion."

"Alan Anderson" from Indiana was similarly to acknowledge the positives. "The main potential benefit I can see is that some people are good with ‘programming’ but not with ‘coding’. Giving them the ability to express code as a graphical flowchart overcomes the conceptual hurdle of writing programs as textual instructions."

SAVING THE WORLD

While Choo and his colleagues at eLabtronics believe CoreChart should be the preference of all microchip programmers, it is those new to coding, especially students, with whom CoreChart is having the biggest impact.

"We’re hitting the vast majority of the worldwide market, which is in education. Defence companies and government agencies such as CSIRO have no problem with CoreChart," says Choo. "When I was speaking to MicroChip Technology, I said, ‘I can open up 99 percent of the world market for you. Just consider this: you have been putting in millions of dollars to try to push your chips into schools and universities. There are 20 other chip makers – Motorola, Intel, etc. – who are lining up down the corridor the moment you leave the professor’s door. You’ve got a problem, mate. I’ve got a solution for you. Get into high schools and you have 99 percent of the world market. That’s when we became friends."

Faced with tepid private sector adoption of CoreChart in Australia, eLabtronics has begun giving away sponsorships to foreign countries in the form of free software and support.

"I started this journey wanting to make a hell of a lot of money. I was close to nearly losing my house. But the landscape changed as I travelled along that journey. I met billionaires who told me that they are not happy because, when they were making those billions, they became too money-driven and forgot about family and country.

"I started thinking, ‘Is money the real driver? Or is Australia really the only country that I want to help?’ Is the world a safer place if those hungry stomachs have a few grains of rice in them? People started walking into my office and changing my mind. They said, "Look, I’m working for God. I don’t need your money. Just give me your technology and I will make it happen."

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

Western countries such as Australia and the US continue to slide down the global rankings for science and mathematical excellence. The situation is not helped by the fact that programming languages like assembler and C are so boring and complicated that virtually all school children switch off.

Choo’s dream is to build 10,000 schools around the world. Last year he gave US$10,000 worth of software (each licence cost US$100) to Colin, an ex-student who is now a teacher and missionary in Kyrgyzstan, where the average wage is 50 cents a day. Once Colin is established, Choo plans to give him a US$10 million software sponsorship, which he hopes will be used as a bargaining chip with the Kyrgyzstan government to acquire land and build schools. Choo has visions of this happening in Africa and Asia, too.

"If you want to address genuine hunger in the world, you have to get the kids to jump up and say, ‘Eureka! I’m an inventor now!’," says Choo.

Malaysia and Singapore have already adopted CoreChart training and mentorship programs, something that leaves Choo in emotional paradox. He is happy to see such keen interest in a product he believes in so fervently, but is saddened that the benefit will be felt in other ‘clever countries’ and not Australia, his home of 22 years.

"Two Singaporean professors in the Economic Development Board are lobbying hard for CoreChart. Their entire economy is built around the concept of using smart innovation to get the most out of their limited resources. Even their water comes from Malaysia! China and India are rising. What is stopping them putting a team of engineers together to reinvent CoreChart in a matter of months? I’ll be talking hot air then. This is a potential global story for Australia."

 
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