Limor Fried and I spoke at the Web 2.0 Expo New York 2009 today… Here’s a description of our talk and our slides!

Open source hardware is a term slowly working its way into many new projects and efforts, but what is it? There are a few definitions, some of which come from “open source software,” which is usually considered software’s “source code under a license (or arrangement such as the public domain) that permits users to study, change, and improve the software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified form.” So how does this translate to hardware? This session will focus on electronic hardware, the layers they can be divided into, different document types, licensing concerns, and a show-and-tell of hardware. Because of the openness of the movement it is increasingly being tied to Web 2.0 services.

30 thoughts on “Open source hardware and the web…

  1. Its been a while since I’ve worked on any open hardware projects. While not free, I found it manageable. I built a blackfinOne for next to nothing by sharing the costs with others (economy of scale is a must with PCBs). It takes more effort than software, design iterations are farther between, but it is much more engaging by necessity.

    I prefer the terms ‘open design’ or ‘open hardware’ to ‘open source hardware.’ The latter feels cumbersome off the tongue. My $0.02.

  2. @christopher – hiya! the problem with “open design” is that it’s unclear what it is, what’s possible and what’s not ok.

    open source hardware means something specific, commercial use allowed. just like open source software means commercial use allowed.

    i would say that “open design” is a good term for the folks who don’t want to allow commercial use but do promote an “open” design process, i think the monome project is a good example of “open design” but it’s not open source hardware as per the makers.

    all that said, it’s still early, someone could like come up with better terms and they could be adopted.

    1. But there isn’t any Source in hardware like there is in software. Also Source points to a toolchain to use (if it’s C++ you know what you need to make it). A published circuit could be implimented in so many different ways. SMD covered Multi-layered PCB (expensive tools required) or through-hole (make at home with $8 soldering iron). Unless it was only the PCB design that was released and not the circuit diagram.. that would be very specific (like source code).

      It’s also questionable how commercially usable GPL’d software is. You can only recover the costs to make and ship it, correct? But you could easily charge for the hardware used to run the GPL’d (free!) software.

      Open design tells me the design is open, anyone could copy and change it.. then impliment/make the design. Open source hardware tells me the exact same thing.. only that the movement itself has spawned from the Software community’s movement.. and has yet to create a unique label/identity for itself.

  3. @Maha – “But there isn’t any Source in hardware like there is in software”

    i don’t think that’s correct, there is: source code, bill of materials, schematics, PCB files, etc (this is outlined in the presentation thoroughly). you can release open source software that doesnt compile or requires a commercial compiler, that doesnt mean its not open source, just that its not as useful.

    you can charge whatever you want for GPL software, but you need to have all the source code available.

    “open design” doesn’t mean commercial use is allowed, however we have noticed that when people use that term, it usually means (in practice so far) that it’s not.

    1. Good discussion!

      I still say code and hardware are completely seperate. They can’t be lumped together under the OSHW flag. Combined they become a platform. It is very possible to have an open hardware design and closed source firmware. Or just the opposite (more common) open source and closed hardware design.

      But i noticed that commerical use is a keystone of your argument. I agree that anything with the word ‘Open’ in the title should be free for commercial use. But even then there are so many shades of gray there. If your commercial projects touch GPL then your code just became free and virtually unsellable. Anyone can host and sell your code/binaries at that point (for even $0). LGPL allows you to include OSS and your own closed source and sell it in a controlled way. Later when you’ve recovered the costs you can open up the program.

      For example, the Chumby License is VERY scary for commerical use. Chumby can take and use any modifications for free, without restriction. This type of license is excellent for a company to use in growing a hacker community.. but it is also control over the device itself. Where as Open Source is extremely uncontrolled and anyone can rebrand it, incorporate it into a product, and sell it without worry of copying (as with LGPL). GPL is totally uncontrollable. If the company (or persons) making the GPL software die, anyone can pick it up and continue. Hardware must be able to meet either of those, in order to be OSHW, imo of course.

      1. @maha – thank, i think this is a great discussion too. let me try and address your comments:

        “code and hardware are completely seperate. They can’t be lumped together under the OSHW flag.”

        well, like it or not, they have :) the presentation talks about the *layers* of OSH, some might be closed source tools, some might be licenses that do not allow commercial use. i think for those it might be “open hardware” non-commercial use. it’s still early though, one thing is for sure – the people who actually do OSH seem to agree with how we’ve observed what is going on and reported in our presentation.

        “the Chumby License is VERY scary for commerical use. Chumby can take and use any modifications for free, without restriction. This type of license is excellent for a company to use in growing a hacker community.. but it is also control over the device itself. Where as Open Source is extremely uncontrolled and anyone can rebrand it, incorporate it into a product, and sell it without worry of copying (as with LGPL). GPL is totally uncontrollable. If the company (or persons) making the GPL software die, anyone can pick it up and continue. Hardware must be able to meet either of those, in order to be OSHW, imo of course.”

        interesting, who exactly is scared of the chumby license who actually does OSH? i’ve never heard of that, but i’m curious – very interesting to hear those concerns.

  4. Nice, but not new… people have been trying to fit some reality to the catchy phrase ‘Open Source Hardware’ for some time now. Round peg, square hole — There are fundamental differences between HW and SW. Most critically are capital outlay, cost to build and rev prototypes, and cost to distribute. Very different economics.

    What I find funny is that while nerds like us debate what it could be and what it could look like, the world continues on with all manner of hardware built against published standards and intended to allow compatibility and interchangeability. In fact, we live in a world where a decreasing number of gadgets occupy our lives. PCs, Arduinos, and Adroid are all open platform on which we can create virtually everything. Seems like this is where the OSHW discussion should be focused…

    1. dont quite understand your comment. first off, there is cost to open source software…its just hidden. one must buy the hardware (computer) and there are thousands of hours of software engineering time. its even worse, economically, because its much harder to sell open source software than hardware.

      second, we’re not ‘debating’ what it ‘could be’ or ‘could look’ like. i’ve spent every day for the last few years designing open source hardware and giving it away. arduino is -part- of that, not despite it. in fact, if you look at the slides posted we bring up many real concrete examples of existing open source hardware with economic models. there is no debate or theorization anywhere in the presentation :)

      1. The cost to distribute a revision to software vs. hardware is much lower. Right? “click this link” vs. “buy and build this board”. It’s an economics thing — look up ‘Sunk cost’ on Wiki. Also look at all the most well known OSSW projects, they are not selling the SW, they are selling services around the SW taking advantage of network effects (wiki it too) to ensure relevance.

        My point is that OSHW has existed since the advent of hardware (you know, like the wheel), so what’s the point of a spiffy PPT hyping it? Again. And again.

        But, typical Make, every comment made gets a smack down by one of the authors, just look at this or any other Torrone thread. I’m just a guy who runs a company that uses open source SW and closed source HW for many great reasons both legal and economic…

  5. @Toolboy – you wrote…

    “The cost to distribute a revision to software vs. hardware is much lower. Right? “click this link” vs. “buy and build this board”.”

    all depends, there are many examples where the costs of dozens of programmers pushing out an update is easily more expensive than just sending out a kit or a part to a customer.

    then you said “My point is that OSHW has existed since the advent of hardware (you know, like the wheel), so what’s the point of a spiffy PPT hyping it? Again. And again.”

    1. the term open source hardware is new, it’s means something specific. limor fried (my co-presenter is a pioneer in doing it). if you can find an example of “OSHW” before the advent of hardware where it’s clearly defined *and* have examples of companies and people doing it successfully, please post them up.

    2. people did “open source software” for years before it was called OSS, but eventually it was defined and now everyone agrees what it is. OSH is not there yet.

    3. the presentation in not a powerpoint, it’s a keynote. it’s not “hyped” we were invited to speak about this topic.

    lastly, MAKE has a category about open source hardware, we sell OSH, it’s one of fundamental things we celebrate on MAKE. of course it will appear here. again and again.

    you wrote: “But, typical Make, every comment made gets a smack down by one of the authors, just look at this or any other Torrone thread.”

    please show me an example of a “torrone” thread where i smacked something down. don’t confuse participation with smacking.

    you’re posting on make anonymously commenting on something i wrote – of course i’m going to comment, more so when it i don’t agree with what you’re saying. it’s not a “smack down” it’s responding to your comment.

    you also said “I’m just a guy who runs a company that uses open source SW and closed source HW for many great reasons both legal and economic…”

    great! i am glad that is working out for you. don’t do OSH, no one is demanding you do so. this is about how *we* do it and why. it’s working out for *us*.

    i help run a successful open source hardware company. i’ve documented it in many presentations, sharing how we work at adafruit and why. there are *dozens* of companies that have started based on the models we’ve outlined, they’re doing great too :)

    if you’d like to talk about your company, how you operate, and go through all the details like i did, please do! maybe i’ve got it all wrong :)

  6. Torrone: “people did “open source software” for years before it was called OSS, but eventually it was defined and now everyone agrees what it is. OSH is not there yet”

    So I’m right… this is all just semantics. My goal was to shift the discussion away from semantics toward how to navigate the real world obstacles (there are always obstacles). IMHO that is best done focusing on platforms such as Arduino and Openmoko. Having the author rebut every single comment made on a thread is my definition of discouraging dialogue– use your own yardstick.

  7. @Toolboy – semantics aren’t your thing it seems. you’re likely not the audience for this presentation – in fact is was for web 2 expo as i said in my post.

    OSH as a “business” is very new and that’s what this presentation was about and how we use the web. commercial use vs non-commercial use is huge topic.

    i do open source hardware for a living, i live in an open source hardware factory, it does not get more real world than this.

    “My goal was to shift the discussion away from semantics toward how to navigate the real world obstacles (there are always obstacles). IMHO that is best done focusing on platforms such as Arduino and Openmoko.”

    i’m not sure if you read the presentation (or any presentation or article) i’ve written. all they are are real world navigational aids. from where to buy parts to setting up a scale to weigh packages. there are dozens are articles that i’ve written just about arduino, people complain about there being too much arduino on MAKE and other sites, there’s a lot of focus on it.

    “Having the author rebut every single comment made on a thread is my definition of discouraging dialogue– use your own yardstick.”

    if you’re going to post anonymously on MAKE and say things that are accurate i’m going to participate – the discussion here is great besides your “nice but not new, meh” tone :)

    1. I’ll follow your example and use the ‘my opinions are unimpeachable’ tone this time…

      The opensource HW discussion has been around for quite awhile – therefore, not new. Published, documented standards and interface specs are how HW is shared across industry and engineers today. My OPINION (wiki that word) is that this would be a useful model to expand upon. There are economic and physical realities that control the world, I just scandalously proposed that they hadn’t been fully considered. Not everybody that disagrees with you is out to get you (wiki paranoia while you’ve got the site open).

  8. @Toolboy – the presentation i posted (and articles i’ve written) specifically expand on real world challenges with open source hardware, if you look at the slides it’s not the same as being at the conference of course.

    -margins
    -suppliers
    -licensing in real world use
    -pricing
    -shipping
    -which vendors to use
    -and the list goes on…

    just google around, you’ll see a ton of articles or presentations by myself or limor fried. i’m not sure why you’re insisting that our presentation isn’t real world enough. this is all we do for a living, open source hardware.

    what specifically has not been fully considered? list it out here, i’d love to see it! this is a topic i’m interested in otherwise i’d just ignore the snarky jabs :)

    we’re likely saying the same thing but not hearing each other at all.

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