MakerBot’s Mixed Messages About Open Source, Their Future

Rob Giseburt

Software Engineer by day, 3D printing enthusiast all the time.

4 Articles

By Rob Giseburt

Software Engineer by day, 3D printing enthusiast all the time.

4 Articles

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Replicator 2 OSHW?

This article (and its predecessor) is an opinion piece by Rob Giseburt, an active member of the 3DP open source community. It does not necessarily represent the opinions of MAKE. Its purpose is not to prematurely punish MakerBot for their recent decisions and future directions in which they may (or may not) be headed, but rather, to get a reasonable dialog going about the import of such changes to open source hardware in general and 3DP in specific. – Gareth Branwyn

In the wake of MakerBot’s Replicator 2 announcement, there has been a lot of discussion and questioning about the open source status of the company’s offerings. The MakerWare software used to control both the new printer and the original Replicator is available for download now. It is clearly closed source, even though it contains some open source software, and instead of being open source, they are offering a developer program.

When asked if the Replicator 2 will be open source hardware, the response in a post by Bre Pettis on the MakerBot blog never directly answered the question. Instead, the response indicates that they no longer believe that they can have a “sustainable business” with open hardware, citing a lack of “large, successful open hardware companies.”

At one point Bre even questions, “Will we be successful? I hope so, but even if we are not, everyone will find out that either being as open as possible is a good thing for business or that nobody should do it, or something in between.” This doesn’t seem to indicate that they have a clear plan that they are confident of.

The comments on the page are generally critical of the lack of a direct answer, and Bre responded to each in turn with his own comment. He still does not directly answer the primary question, but does attempt to more directly explain why:


Uh, FYI, You posed this question:

“Question 1: Is the MakerBot Replicator 2 Open Source?”

But you do not answer it. You just dance around it and throw out a bunch of happy words about open source.

Bre Responds:

Lasivian – Folks really want a black or white answer, but in my experience, it just doesn’t work that way when combining open source, hardware, and business. There is an open hardware definition, but it’s a far throw from a business model.

Chris B

Doesn’t seem like there are some wildly different issues faced by ‘open hardware’ than by ‘open software’ and there are many examples of very successful and very large businesses doing open software and providing services as a way to make money.

The analogies are there. Innovate and capitalize on services and enterprise features while remaining open with your core like the big boys do.

Bre responds:

Chris B – Software and hardware have some similarities, but it’s really different stuff. But I take your point about service and we are adding a pro-level of support by offering MakerCare. Will people purchase it? We’ll see.

Bre’s statements and answers alternate between confidence and uncertainty for MakerBot’s future, and seems to indicate that they don’t have a definite plan of action.

Adrian Bowyer, founding father of the RepRap project from which MakerBot was born, also comments at length on the MakerBot post. His summary seems to explain his position fairly well:

If you are taking part in the RepRap project, then I hope that you believe Open Source to be a morally and politically good thing, as I do. But if you don’t believe that, you are still welcome to take part, by me at least. When it comes to the success or failure of RepRap, moral beliefs, legal constraints and the flow of money are almost completely irrelevant.

It is the evolutionary game theory that matters.

Zack ‘Hoeken’ Smith, a MakerBot co-founder who is not longer with the company, responded to the post with understandable emotion. He described the content of the post as “a load of corporate double-speak bull****,” and described MakerBot’s move to closed source as “the ultimate betrayal.” He ends the post with an excerpt from the Open Source Hardware Definiton.

In Bre’s post, he also answered some questions about the Thingiverse terms of service, basically reiterating what he said earlier in the year. This is most likely in reaction to Josef Průša’s Occupy Thingiverse, an emotional reaction — shared by many — from one of the most prominent contributors to the RepRap project to the terms of service changes as well as MakerBot’s alleged releasing new products as closed source. (It appears that Josef misunderstood that the terms of service had already been changed, but that doesn’t seem to detract from his argument.)

Since this topic is so emotionally charged for so many people, there have been several in the community who have asked that everyone keep their conversations civil. Phillip Torrone (“pt”) from MAKE and Adafruit, commented on the MakerBot blog post:

thanks for posting this up bre, this is a great conversation that everyone can and should join in, thoughtfully -and- respectful to each other. let’s all be good to each other with our words & actions. there’s a lot of passion here for many. this is a great opportunity to talk about open source and open source hardware as companies like makerbot, adafruit, sparkfun, etc, etc grow. so let’s talk

In this thoughtful post by Tom Igoe of the Arduino team he sums up with:

So: if you’ve got an objection to what MakerBot or anyone in your own community does, speak up. But do it politely. Before you say anything, phrase it as if you had the person you’re addressing in front of you. Check the language with your grandmother, if you need to.

The discovery that MakerBot, as early as 2011, filed for and received a patent, only adds more questions to the discussion. It’s unclear how this affects the open source derivatives of their patented technology, such as this Truly Automatic Thing-O-Matic on Thingiverse by user emmett.

Many commenters from both my previous post and Bre’s point to their VC funding as the reason for this sudden move. This seems odd that investors who seem to understand the promise of open source and even open source some of their legal documents, would make such a move.

It appears that MakerBot is confused in its role in the marketplace and the direction it’s heading in general. They seemed to have lost touch with the way that open source is supposed to work, and the core principles that the company was built upon.

Bre sums up with “This isn’t the first change we’ve made to become more of a professional business, and it won’t be our last.”


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