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The Future of Open Source

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!)

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Teensy vs. Atmega32u4 Breakout Board+


Photos from Adafruit Industries.

I remember seeing the Teensy when I was digging into Arduino stuff last year, and it looked interesting, mainly due to it being small and cheap. (I like cheap!) But since I’m a lot more interested in what the Arduino has to offer, I didn’t look into the Teensy very much.

The Teensy is interesting though because out of the box it functions as a USB HID device, which means it can very easily emulate a keyboard or mouse. (See this Awesome Button post for a neat example.)

If you didn’t know, I’m a big fan of Adafruit Industries, not just for their amazing customer service and great products, but for their support of the open source movement, especially the work they’ve done with open source hardware. Adafruit actually sells the Teensy, but they also came out with a product called the “Atmega32u4 Breakout Board+” (terrible name, eh?) which is like a Teensy, but not like a Teensy.

Here’s where it gets weird… or interesting… or both…

By all respects, the Teensy is pretty cool, as I said, it’s small, and cheap, and can emulate a USB HID, and if your project needs that, it’s a good fit. See the Teensy page for more info.

Now, the “Atmega32u4 Breakout Board+” (terrible name) by Adafruit is similar but different. You can check out the Atmega32u4 Breakout Board+ page for more info.

Ultimately, I think I’d prefer to use the Atmega32u4 Breakout Board+ from Adafruit, and for a good explanation, see this Adafruit blog post about the Teensy, and for extra credit, see A Brief Essay About the Benefits of Open-Source Hardware.

It’s a shame the Teensy is not open source hardware, as I’d prefer to support vendors of open source hardware.

So I’ve got a project planned, and it will use a Teensy. So why not use a Atmega32u4 Breakout Board+? The first reason is, I don’t think I’m ready for it. In reading through the Atmega32u4 Breakout Board+ docs and digging through the forums a bit, it looks like Atmega32u4 Breakout Board+ development is not exactly easy for a beginner. I’d like to get into it at some point, but right now, the Teensy seems like an easier path to completing my project, and maybe once it’s done I can look into working with the Atmega32u4 Breakout Board+.

I know this may seem like a small thing, but I’d really like to support open source hardware when I can, the same way I try to support open source software when I can. It’s always a struggle.

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Welcome to 1984, Apple

I think I first heard the phrase “The network is the computer” in the late 1990s. It was Sun Microsystems who wanted to convince us of this. I worked at a creative agency at the time, where we had pretty powerful Macs on every desk. We thought, sure, a dumb terminal or “network computer” was fine for office drones doing their menial tasks, but creatives needed more power than that… we needed to connect scanners, and color calibration devices, and weird disk drives, and work on ginormous Photoshop files, and things that required more than the VAX terminals we also used at the time.

Fast forward 15 years and what Apple has effectively given us is… a computer that looks like it’s nearly useless without a network. Hello MacBook Air. Don’t get me wrong… it’s a well designed piece of computer. The fact that it weight almost the same as an Eee PC I bought 3 years ago is not lost on me… nor is the fact that the user experience is probably 10 times better. But I still worry about where we are headed…

The MacBook Air has it’s place. But I just can’t help but feel like while hacker/maker culture is moving in one direction, Apple sometimes seems to be moving in the other… creating these sealed boxes that are definitely easy to use, but harder to open. Steve Wozniak must be turning in his grave. The Apple ][ was like the ultimate hacking machine when it came out… and now you can’t even connect a FireWire video camera to the MacBook Air.

In all this I hope Apple doesn’t forget it’s core creative audience. The ones who need Mac Pros, and need to install dedicated cards, and more drives, and tons of memory… The content creators. While the iLife suite gets these great improvements, many of us worry that the Pro Apps are being neglected. Does Apple take us for granted? Knowing that we’ll upgrade Final Cut Studio no matter what?

In the old days you could actually upgrade your computer instead of just getting rid of it and getting a new one. (You could even upgrade the processor!) I’ve been a fan/customer of Other World Computing for many years, and upon reading their write-up of Apple’s “Back to the Mac” event, it saddened me a bit:

Apple seems to be making things easier and more intuitive as well, but seems to be more enabling rather than empowering lately. We want to email our photos, Apple makes it drag and drop easy to put together one of four pre-made collages from our photos and pick an address to send them to. We ask for better tools to make videos, they hand us pre-built effects rather than tools to adjust them ourselves. We want to share our photos with our friends on Facebook, Apple automates and organizes it all for us. Are we as consumers going to gradually lose our ability to do traditional computing (using and upgrading) for ourselves as we conform our computing lifestyles to Apple’s one size fits all templates … and, as a result, is 1984 coming full circle?