[EAS] Open-Source Consumer Products

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Sun Jun 15 17:25:19 EDT 2008

Dear Colleagues -

Some six years ago in these mailings 
<http://jove.eng.yale.edu/pipermail/eas-info/2002/000361.html>, I 
told you about my own shifting, and increasingly hermetic, 
relationship with my technologies. The trend, and why I deplore it, 
is all explained there, and serves as good, if lengthy, background.

Now an item about open-source hardware in The Economist's most recent 
Technology Quarterly 
gives me hope for a return to a more constructive relationship to our 
technological belongings, at least in some quarters. Open-source 
software has been a developmental thread all along, largely thanks to 
Richard Stallman <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stallman>.

Now, from MIT's innovation guru Eric von Hippel on down, there seems 
to be a growing awarenes that understanding your belongings improves 
your sense of ownership of them, and that the ability to contribute 
to their evolution can be even more motivating -- at least for some. 
To quote: "Going open-source may also help to keep customers. 'Once 
you've opened the guts of a machine, you're a much more loyal 
customer,' says Mr Talley, who got a Chumby for Christmas."

Anyway, it's getting to be summer, you've been burdened with very few 
mailings from me, so look over my 2002 mailing and then The Economist 
article. [Oh, and as regards the comment at the end of that 2002 
mailing, after maintaining my oil furnace for 28 years, I'm planning 
on getting a new and more efficient one this year.]

[Just in case the URL doesn't work for you, The Economist article 
text follows below. My 2002 URL still works fine.]     --PJK

Open-source hardware

Open sesame
Jun 5th 2008
 From The Economist print edition

Consumer devices: Revealing the underlying technical details of 
electronic gadgets can have many benefits, for both users and 

THE idea of "open source" software is familiar to many computer 
users. Enthusiasts get together on the internet to create a new 
program, and as well as giving it away, they also make available its 
source code-the software's underlying blueprint. This allows other 
people to make additions and improvements, and those are made 
available, in turn, to anyone who is interested. You do not have to 
be a programmer to benefit from the open-source model: many people 
use the Linux operating system or Firefox web-browser, for example, 
both of which have been developed in this way.

Now the same approach is being applied to hardware, albeit in a 
modified form. The open-source model cannot be directly carried over 
to hardware, because software can be duplicated and distributed at 
almost no cost, whereas physical objects cannot. Modifying source 
code and then distributing a new, improved version of a program is 
much easier than improving and sharing the design of, say, an 
open-source motorbike. Some day, perhaps, fabricating machines will 
be able to transform digital specifications (software) into physical 
objects (hardware), which will no doubt lead to a vibrant trade in 
specifications, some of which will be paid for, and some of which 
will be open-source.

But until that day, the term "open-source hardware" is being used in 
a narrower sense. It refers to an emerging class of electronic 
devices, for which the specifications have been made public, so that 
enthusiasts can suggest refinements, write and share software 
improvements, and even build their own devices from scratch. This is 
not as daft as it sounds. Even if all the details needed to build 
something are available, few people will have the tools or the 
inclination to do so.

A good example is the OSD, a "media fridge" made by Neuros Technology 
of Chicago which acts as a repository of video from DVDs, camcorders, 
cable boxes and so on. Neuros made the OSD's technical specifications 
available, and a group of users then wrote software to add a new 
feature that many users had requested: the ability to stream video 
from the OSD to another device across the internet. To access this 
new feature, users simply had to download a software patch. "It's 
harder for my device to get antiquated," says Aaron Crum, an OSD 
user, "and I don't have to buy another $200 device next year."

This opens the way to a new model for product development, suggests 
Seth Talley, the owner of a Chumby, another open-source device. "The 
destiny of the product has been turned over to the user base," he 
says. "You're talking the wisdom of crowds with the control of the 
corporation." Companies, for their part, say an open approach can 
help them get to market quickly with products that give customers 
what they want-without the need for market research. Such advantages, 
they say, outweigh the drawbacks of exposing what are usually seen as 
corporate secrets.

The origins of open

In some ways, open-source hardware is a throwback to the 1970s and 
1980s, when early computers were sold in kits or shipped with 
schematic diagrams to make it easier for users to customise them. But 
the open-hardware trend has been reborn in recent years, thanks to 
the rise of the internet and the success of open-source software. 
Some enthusiasts point to 2005 as a crucial year: that was when work 
began on devices such as the RepRap (a rapid-prototyping machine that 
will, its makers hope, be able to replicate itself) and the TuxPhone, 
an open, Linux-powered mobile-phone. It was also when Sun 
Microsystems, a computer-maker, decided to publish the specifications 
of one of its microprocessors, the UltraSPARC T1. The open-source 
hardware trend is now growing fast, says Adrian Bowyer, a mechanical 
engineer at the University of Bath and the inventor of the RepRap.

Now companies, and not just internet-based enthusiasts, are embracing 
the open-source hardware model. Neuros is one example; another is 
OpenMoko, based in Taipei, which has an open-source mobile-phone 
operating system and a mobile phone, the Neo1973. Chumby Industries, 
based in San Diego, has the Chumby-a sort of computerised cushion 
with wireless internet access and a small touch-screen, which can be 
reprogrammed as an alarm clock, weather station, photo album and so 

There can be limits to open-hardware companies' openness. Gumstix, 
which sells tiny computers to put into other devices, publishes the 
hardware specifications of all its products except for its 
motherboards. "The motherboard is our intellectual property-we have a 
secret sauce to make that," says Gordon Kruberg, the firm's chief 
executive. "My philosophy is: I really like to publish as much as I 
can, but my gut feeling is that this is what we want to keep this 
in-house." Some firms publish just enough information about their 
hardware for it to be reprogrammed, but not replicated. This is the 
approach of iRobot, the maker of the Roomba robotic vacuum-cleaner, 
based in Bedford, Massachusetts, for example.

Enthusiasts enjoy tinkering, and other users like being able to 
upgrade their devices with new software. But what is in it for 
companies? One advantage is being able to draw upon the expertise of 
their users. "We get a question that has stumped our developers for 
days and we push it public and get a suggestion within five minutes," 
says Sean Moss-Pultz, OpenMoko's founder and chief executive.

Even so, making a business out of open hardware is a notion that 
baffles many people. "They wonder how you're going to make money with 
it," says Mitch Altman, president and chief technology officer at 
Cornfield Electronics in San Francisco. It makes the TV-B-Gone, an 
impish gadget for turning off televisions (whether or not they belong 
to you), and also sells kits for consumers who want to build their 

Open-hardware business models are difficult to understand, because by 
turning users into product developers, they turn tradition on its 
head, says Eric von Hippel, professor of innovation at the MIT Sloan 
School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the author of 
"Democratizing Innovation". That makes it necessary for companies to 
consider the users' motivations too, he says. "The users have a 
built-in business model-they build to satisfy themselves," he says. 
"The business model is 'I can get stuff for myself, I can get a 
better design and I can benefit.' The innovation is paid for within 
the activity itself."
Illustration by Fraser Hudson
Illustration by Fraser Hudson

As well as tapping a valuable new source of ideas, an open approach 
can also lead to savings in market research, as users act as focus 
groups, indicating what new features they would like (and then 
helping to develop them). An early model of OpenMoko's phone had no 
Wi-Fi, for example, because Wi-Fi chips were expensive and the firm 
could not find a chipmaker willing to go along with its open 
approach. But once OpenMoko posted its plans and schematics online, 
enthusiasts told the company that they really wanted the Wi-Fi 
function-and then found a chipmaker willing to supply a chip and to 
go along with OpenMoko's unusual model.

Going open-source may also help to keep customers. "Once you've 
opened the guts of a machine, you're a much more loyal customer," 
says Mr Talley, who got a Chumby for Christmas. Sun says the primary 
advantage of open-sourcing the designs of its processor chips is an 
elusive marketing boost to its other products, such as server 
computers. "It builds a community that will buy our hardware," says 
Sridhar Vajapey, who runs Sun's OpenSPARC program. "Is Sun making 
money on open-source hardware? Absolutely. We can't measure it 
directly, but we do know the vector is going in the right direction."

An alternative approach is to make money from something other than 
the hardware. Chumby Industries, for instance, expects to make most 
of its revenue by piping advertising to its devices. "It's a 
traditional media model, only with user control," says Steve Tomlin, 
the firm's founder and chief executive.

Difficult to open

But open-source hardware poses difficulties, too. In addition to 
publishing all the software code for a device, for example, makers of 
open-source hardware generally reveal the physical information needed 
to build a device, including schematics, materials and dimensions. 
This is not something manufacturers normally do, and takes time and 
effort. Supplying open-source hardware is necessarily, therefore, 
more time-consuming and complex. "It can't be as simple as 
open-source software," says Peter Semmelhack, the founder of Bug 
Labs, a company based in New York that sells open-source hardware 
modules to put into other devices. "It has chips, schematics and 
things coming from many sources." And suppliers of those many parts 
are not always interested in going open source, which further 
complicates matters. OpenMoko tries to use chips with open 
specifications, says Mr Moss-Pultz, though some chipmakers are 
reluctant to play along. "It's like they're taking their pants off in 
public," he says.

Working with a zealous open-source community can be like negotiating 
with a stampede. "Too much feedback makes it so you can't work any 
more," says Mr Moss-Pultz. A company can easily lose focus when it is 
deluged with unprofitable and obscure ideas from fervent users. "In 
open-source hardware there is a great deal of flexibility," says Joe 
Born, the chief executive of Neuros. "But at the same time, that can 
be more rope to hang yourself with." Another worry is that by sharing 
plans for future products online, along with schematics and software, 
firms may jeopardise sales of existing products, says Mr Kruberg.

And even if open-source enthusiasts like your product, are they 
representative of the wider public? Open devices "tend to be geared 
more toward technology-oriented people, with products you might not 
see at Best Buy," notes Lance Lavery, a systems administrator and 
self-proclaimed "uber-geek" who owns a Chumby. As James Staten, an 
analyst at Forrester Research puts it: "Consumers don't tinker." So 
open-source hardware could turn out to be an obscure niche.

But Dr von Hippel disagrees. Even those who do not tinker can benefit 
from the work of those who do, just as ordinary consumers can still 
use Firefox without having to know anything about programming. 
Mainstream consumers will benefit from open hardware, he says, "by 
having a wider choice." The analogy with software is informative in 
another way, too. Open-source software has resulted in new products 
such as Linux and Firefox, but it has also been embraced by many big 
names in the computer industry, such as IBM, Sun and Hewlett-Packard. 
Even Microsoft, the company that has been most vociferous in its 
opposition to the open-source model, has lately conceded that in some 
situations, at least, it has merit.

All of which suggests that open-source hardware will really start to 
make a difference when big hardware makers and consumer-electronics 
firms begin to embrace the idea. "It's a new day for consumer 
electronics," says Chumby's Mr Tomlin. "The community makes 
suggestions and shares hacks. And we don't try to sue our innovators. 
We make heroes of them."

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