Sunday, January 6, 2008

Open-Source Hardware & Gadgets

I just read this article at the NYTimes about Neuros OSD, an Open Source Device (OSD) for digital video recording. Like the name suggests, the device is open-source in hardware and software. But when I look at all the hardware and gadgets I own, I can't find a single one which is open-source. Infact, most of the gadgets don't even have a proper manual. You have to open the box and look through all the chip ID and then hope that somewhere the chip manufacturer has left something for you to munch! Lets not talk about the software side of these gadgets... its even worse.

The NYTimes article is not the first time that I've heard about open-source hardware or read an article glorifying open-source. I have attended a few conferences on open-source evangelism and read quite a few books and articles on it. I have also looked closely at it as a business model as well. And that brings me to the question as to why isn't open-source hardware popular?

If you look at the word "open-source", its been applied at a lot of places. And not just in software or computing. Its been adopted in education, arts, automobiles and quite a few other places. But then its in these sectors as well where you can count open-source adoption on your fingers. If I have to say it bluntly, "Open-source is not human-like" and hence it's not popular. The open-source ideology in software may be gaining popularity, but its more so because open-source evangelism gets more media coverage. An evidence to this fact is that while I'm writing this post, I also read about McAfee not giving back code to open-source project as part of the GPL (GNU Public License).  And I'm not writing this piece as an open-source supporter. Instead, I'm here to tell you that open-source hardware has a few pitfalls as well.

Open-Source Starts Excitement

There could be two diametrically reasons for the excitement surrounding open-source. It could either be because its atypical (aberrant of  human tendency) or its very close to man being a "social animal". Whatever be the reason, open-source does provide excitement. This excitement means you get more eyes to your project and more hands to help you expand the project. All of this means, you have an opportunity to sell your product. Open-source gadgets allow more people to tweak and play with it and in-turn the company sells more of the gadget. The user of the product also gets additional enhancements made by other users. Open-source is educational for the geek as well as more usable for the novice.

Whose Opportunity

So all these are good for the product that is open-sourced...right? Not completely. Didn't I just say its an opportunity to sell your product? But it is obvious that anyone with better manufacturing capabilities can have an even better opportunity. For hardware manufacturing, we all know China, Taiwan etc. can make it cheaper than others. The hardware that you designed and manufactured in another country can be easily replicated and sold cheaper. Currently closed gadgets are copied and sold cheaper. If your hardware is open-sourced, its infact an open-permit for the other to copy.

This is probably one of the main reasons why open-sourcing hardware/gadgets is not popular and never will be. Other reasons could be security loopholes, not-so-great designs, upgrade markets, dumping old components in newer models...

But this hasn't stopped open-source hardware to be released. There are many examples of open-source hardware and the list seems to be growing every month. Some popular open-source hardware projects include OpenSPARC (CPU), LEON (CPU), S1 Core (CPU), Simputer (Handheld), PLAICE (flash programmer), OpenCellPhone (Mobile Phone), AstFin (Telephony hardware), OSCar (Automobile), gEDA (Electronic Design Automation tools), Daisy (mp3 player), OpenStim (Brain Stimulator) and many many more.

Bad Never Happens to Good People

I can't forget the argument a student of mine gave in support of open-source. He said that "Atleast my contribution is changing the world"... And then another said, "If that contribution can earn you your bread..."... and I just smiled...

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