2011.05.23

Open Source

Open source software has been around for a long time, and I’ve been following it’s evolution for the past 10 years or so, and in that time I’ve seen it grow from a small idea known only to those in the software world, to something much larger, where everyday people like Aunt Tillie use open source software and think nothing of it.

In the past year since I’ve started working more with hardware, and following the great work of the Arduino team, Adafruit Industries, and others, I’ve seen the rise of open source hardware. Take a look at the Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Statement of Principles and Definition v1.0 and the Open Hardware Summit site for more info.

There’s a great comment by Chris Anderson, highlighted in this blog post at Adafruit. Here’s just a small excerpt:

This is the classic open source hardware model. Software, which costs nothing to distribute, is free. Hardware, which is expensive to make, is priced at the minimum necessary to ensure the healthy growth of a sustainable business to ensure quality, support and availability of the products. All intellectual property is given away, so the community can use it, improve it, make their own variants, etc.

Go there now and read the whole thing.

This got me thinking that eventually open source hardware could be more successful than open source software. If you remember the old concerns about open source software by the business folks, there was always the question of how you would make money from it. You can sell “Premium Editions” or make money by charging for support, you can hire yourselves out as consultants, and offer customized software solutions for customers… The ideas were plenty. Some worked, some didn’t. There were varying degrees of success.

I see open source hardware as pushing beyond that, taking the existing model and improving upon it. The software? Free. Open. Get it rolling, get the community involved, give it away to everyone. You should expect to make no money with software. Sure, it costs money to create software, but it’s a digital good, and making one copy or 1,000 copies has almost the exact same cost.

Hardware, on the other hand, is a physical good. It’s an object, a collection of parts, or things, not just bits of ones and zeros. Hardware costs money because someone, somewhere, assembled some real world thingamabob.

I don’t want to make it sound like hardware is better than software. They’re both equally important. They both need people to design them, create them, market them, and support them. The main difference is that creating 1,000 Arduino-compatible microcontrollers is going to cost more that creating 1,000 copies of the Arduino software. That’s just the reality of digital goods. Once you have one copy, making a lot more is cheap and easy. (And the shipping costs on digital goods are pretty close to zero. I say “pretty close” because there are server costs, bandwidth considerations, and other issues, but you’re not buying boxes, and packaging materials, and paying shipping companies to move goods.

As for the clones, well, that’s just a part of open source hardware, much the same way that an open source software package has forks of the original. Again, the difference is in the support, but support goes both ways. Since open source hardware vendors typically publish everything you need to make their products, you could certainly not buy from them and either build it yourself, or find a company that makes it cheaper. Cheaper is fine. I’m a fan of cheaper, but I’m also someone who believes in supporting those that create things and add value. If it all comes down to nothing but money, we’re pretty much doomed.

(Next time I’ll talk about specific pieces of open source hardware. See you then!)

3 Responses to “The Future of Open Source”

  1. As someone who makes a living writing software I always feel a slight *twinge* when I hear the argument that software should be free because the manufacturing of it costs near zero.

    However…

    I think the root of this conceptual problem is the way we look at goods and products. We see the software as the “thing”, the same way we see a movie or an album as the “thing we are buying” and for a long time there have been systems in place designed to reinforce this idea (record companies, film studios, etc.). The difference with software (and more profoundly with public access to the Internet) is that the means of reproducing and distributing these goods was immediately viable and provided tangible evidence to the irrelevancy of “middle men” between the creator and the consumer.

    Over time the ability to distribute other goods this way became technically viable, much to the chagrin of those making money (and controlling the content) as the arbiters of media. It was (and is) in their interest to convince everyone that there is something unique about software that prevents the elimination of these intermediaries in other industries.

    This wages on in the U.S. thanks to our broken copyright system but slow progress is being made. On the other hand we have Open Hardware, which again challenges the belief that the “old way” of sharing (and profiting) on creativity are the only way to “make a living” and therefore survive. As in software, we’re not waiting around for anyone to tell us OH is a “viable” method and we are content to pursue it and simply show everyone how it’s done.

    As Pete says above, this is just the beginning and the shapes and forms will change and adjust over time (which is just another advantage of the open approach). I believe that those who create the “soft” side of these products (be that software code or hardware CAD drawings, etc.) should be compensated for their time but there is no need to compensate anyone for the dissemination of this information and there is especially no need for brokers, salesmen or MBA’s between the creators and the consumers in this marketplace.

    Those who implement these ideas are compensated for their time and materials as well, but they are not allowed to hold their customers hostage by locking up the “secret internals” of these devices nor are they able to limit how they are used (and re-used).

    We’re not far from a time where even these lines are blurred as electronic descriptions of physical components are downloaded by consumers and printed as needed. There are many, many people and companies who will attempt to interfere with this process, to insert themselves into this “product lifecycle” to maintain their control over markets and to profit off of the work of others. We need to remain vigilant against this as it will certainly appear in the guise of “convenience”.

    In the end this is all just a formalization of “make something cool, sell it to your friends”, which is what I should be doing instead of all this typing…to the laboratory!

    @jasonbot2000

  2. I hope I didn’t make you twinge. When I suggested software should be free, I specifically meant in relation to the open hardware it supports. I use both open source and commercial software, and I think they can coexist (peacefully) but I hate having hardware that relies on some commercial/proprietary software that can’t be extended upon by others.

  3. No Pete, it’s not you but my own prejudices (which I am slowly overcoming :).

    I look forward to being able to replace the things I use (especially tools) with devices of equal quality but superior packability (not that I’m opposed to reverse-engineering, but it can be inefficient and illegal).

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