[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
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
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
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
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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