Screaming Circuits: Open Source Hardware


Open Source Hardware

The open source movement has been a pretty big factor in the software world for many, many years but it just now seems to be rearing it's head (why do we say "rearing it's head". Shouldn't we say "fronting it's head"? Maybe "rearing it's behind"???) in the hardware world. Yes, it has been around with HW, but more silently in the shadows then as an actual productive movement.

We built some Beagleboards with the open source design materials. The Arduino has become quite popular over the last year as an open source platform and we've build some Arduino derivatives. I'm sure there are other open source HW projects out and about as well. Those two just seem to be the most visible at this point.

180px-Arduino_DiecimilaSo, the big question is: "Is open source hardware ready for commercial applications?". You could argue day and night (and people do) as to whether open source Linux is ready for the home computer, but there is no dispute that open source software is ready for commercial use. A good portion of the Internet runs on open source servers. No question about it.

The Arduino was originally designed as an educational product and is quite well suited for that. It's also a great hobby platform, using a simple 8-bit AVR processor and a C++ish programming language. As such, it works pretty well in the hobby world but also has plenty of commercial application potential.

The Beagleboard uses a new Texas Instruments processor that has enough power to render full-motion video. If a little 8-bit jobbie can have commercial applications, the Beagleboard most certainly can too. Further, the Beagleboard design came out of Texas Instruments. They set up the group that put it all together and the result it's a world-class design implementation. Software only folks can buy a pre-built Beagleboard from Digi-key or Special Computing and hardware folks can use the design as an inspiration, use chunks of the design, just produce a board from the exact files (as we did) or any combination thereof.

Personally, I think it's a brilliant move on Ti's part to do this. Mechanically, the part, a .4mm pitch BGA with a .5mm pitch BGA memory chip on top of it in a package-on-package form factor, is very difficult to use. The escape routing alone is a good challenge at that ball pitch. As it is, the open source design files are a great head start for anyone that wants to use the processor. It'll get commercial customers buying the processor a lot sooner then if everyone had to start from scratch. And with the fully-built board also being sold for $150.00, a whole lotta software people can poke around with it and make everyone's job easier.

Duane Benson
Arduino was named after a tavern. What was Beagleboard named after?

Note that "Arduino" is a tradmark of the Arduino team and "Beagleboard" is a trademark of Beagleboard.org. The Arduino picture used came from Wikipedia and was uploaded by someone identifed only as "Randomskk".

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Gerald Coley, the designer of the BeagleBoard, just happens to own a Beagle and chose it as an interim name. It stuck because we all enjoyed the name.

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