PCB Assembly Services - Screaming Circuits: Open Source. What is it Good For?


Open Source. What is it Good For?

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.

Duane Benson
It doesn't mean destruction


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Wow very nice your given information related to the Opensource Development thanks for sharing post.

It is a true fact that open source development has grabbed a major portion of the web development as a whole.

Lee - I'm not sure I'd say that initiating projects has a higher cost in hardware. But, building and using an OSHW project would certainly cost more.

Without forks, OSHW projects could be built in higher volumes which could drop costs, but I think the ability to customize a design is inherent in the concept of open source hardware.

Interesting article, thanks for sharing!

Duane - If forking is more pronounced in OSHW than in software it would confirm the idea that initiating projects has a higher cost. How would you measure that?

Hi there Hmmm;

Yes, as a commercial assembly house we could make money from open source, but we make money when anyone sends us boards to build. Be they open source, proprietary or hobbyists, we charge the same.

As far as the small inventor getting a product to market, there are ways to do that inexpensively. There are a lot of free tools and advice available to help. Adafruit, for example, regularly posts hints on building and running a web store. They use an open source web store and write articles on how to use it. They also give good advice on starting and operating an inventor-based business - so you could be the one selling and profiting from your designs.

SparkFun sells both open source product and non-open source. In the case of non-open source, they essentially act as a contract manufacturer and reseller. Their website give instructions on how to submit products to them for potential commercial resale with you earning commission on each sale.

Building a ZenCart store, or using one of the hosted e-commerce services can get you selling quickly. A lot of individual inventors that sell their own products start out hand soldering each one. That can get you started for very little cost - and you get to keep all of the profit.

"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"

Hey, that's me! So I should invent things and then give away the plans to build them so that *other* people can make money building and selling them instead of me? Sounds like a great id...

Wait a second. The author of this blog post stands to profit from this, but the inventor does not? ಠ_ಠ

"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."

Like, how much are we talking? The same amount they would have made selling the design to the company that's selling the product? Why is this money being given? Just out of the kindness of their hearts? What about the 99% of companies that don't have any hearts?

Lee - In terms of contribution, I think hardware and software differ in the open source community. With software, it can become problematic when forks in the design are made, so a lot of emphasis is place on "the project."

With hardware, that's not such an issue. I see a lot more variations or "based on" designs. With software, one OS or application can cover a whole lot of uses, and additional features don't weight it down much. Additional features in a hardware product add board space and $ cost to a product. It makes a lot of sense to fork and produce more targeted products.

Others may have different insight, but that's what I primarily see in OSHW.

Open source software suffers a malady, the mention of which will ring true with many: unexpectedly low external contribution. It is frustratingly difficult to get people to contribute to the development of a project they didn't create. Basically, open source developers seem to be poor followers.

Is the same true in Open Hardware? I see some effort going into tools to help OSHW foster collaboration (well, perhaps more focused on distribution and publication) but, to what end? For software, GitHub and its ilk haven't made a dent in the contribution gap, even for projects that should be very widely valued and used. The result is an effective "glass ceiling" on the complexity of projects (the exception being projects with strong commercial support and/or sponsorship, e.g. BeagleBoard, Apache, JBoss,etc.).

Looking at hardware, which in my estimation is a bit tougher than software (and I'm a software guy, so I forgive myself for saying it), the bar is even higher for contributors. Perhaps that extra difficulty means more people will help with existing projects rather than create their own. I hope so.

Go (help) build something! :)

"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..."

Great point! Having the idea is only half the battle. Unfortunately history is also full of inventors whose ideas were stolen and capitalized on by others. You have to recognize a good idea when you see it AND know what to do with it.

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