I've written about open source hardware (OSHW) a few times before. Like this and this. I've understood open source software for quite some time and over the last few years have been starting to get what open source hardware is all about. It is different than open source software.
With software, your tangible product is essentially intangible. Your acquisition and distribution of an open source project can be virtually free. Not so with hardware. Someone has to physically build something, which costs time and money in parts and labor. Really though, all that means is the proliferation of an open source hardware product just takes a little longer. If you look at it as the design being open source more than the actual product, then it gets to be more and more similar to software.
While open source software has moved into real business, hardware is still more closely associated with the hobbyist community. That is changing though. Ti's Beagleboard is serious stuff from a serious company. Some of the hobbyist catering OSHW companies are growing to or have grown to the point of being serious businesses (Adafruit, Sparkfun).
This all begs the question: "What is open source hardware good for?" Let's divide and conquer. Or, at least, divide and explain.
- What does it do for innovation?
History is rife with stories of great inventions that were not commercially successful because the inventor was a good inventor but was a lousy business person, didn't have access to funding or just didn't have the drive to build, promote and sell the product.
With OSHW, companies that do have the drive, funding and know-how can pick up an open source project from a developer that doesn't. There are none of the IP concerns that sometimes keep big companies from taking on product from independent inventors. Great products that otherwise would stay hidden can make it out in the world.
Some OSHW companies, like Adafruit compensate the designers who's product they sell. No marketing or selling expense for the designer and yet money comes in to them. Much reduced design expense for the seller, yet they can build a business.
- What does it do for small companies?
It's another way to jump-start design or production of products that will fund the small business. It can reduce the barriers to entry. People who are good at designing but not so good at selling can still earn money. People who are not so good at designing but good at selling can earn a living. People who are good at both designing and selling - they have the best of both worlds and can earn a living. Products that would otherwise stay in obscurity can more easily make it to the world.
- What can it do for big companies?
The answer to this question has been the longest in coming, but there are more and more answers showing up. Take the Beagleboard from Texas Instruments. It got a new processor (the OMAP) out into the hands of their customers quickly. It was a great promotional tool. The software side of an organization could get started with the processor without having to wait for the hardware folks to design, layout and build the hardware. The hardware folks could see how the part and its accessories work in real life.
OMAP users could get a jump-start on complex tasks like escape routing. The manufacturing folks could get some insight and practice into assembling the package on package processor / memory combination. design cycles are short enough as it is. Companies that want to use the Ti processor get professionally designed short-cuts. Ti gets to sell more processors quicker. Everyone wins.
It doesn't mean destruction