[AI] CAN OPEN-SOURCE HARDWARE GO MAINSTREAM?

Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Fri Aug 13 04:43:07 EDT 2010


Howard Wen considers whether the same open-source principles can be applied
to
hardware as software, and whether we'll be using such gadgets any time soon

Open-source software has had a major impact on the way we've used PCs over
the
past decade.  The Apache HTTP Server is the world's most popular web server;
Linux has more than held its own against Unix and other proprietary
operating
systems; and the Firefox browser has given Internet Explorer strong
competition
over the years.

But could the same philosophy - the free and public dissemination of
underlying code and specifications, with multiple developers from disparate
sources contributing to the design - work for hardware as well?

It's already possible to design a device, including its electrical and
mechanical architecture, using computer-aided design (CAD) software, order
nearly all its components online, then process the manufacturing of a
prototype
through a low-cost supplier.  So the idea of organising an open-source
project
online to build a device isn't far-fetched, nor is it one that requires a
great deal of startup funding.

Mark Driver, a Gartner analyst, thinks that open-source gadgets have the
best
chance in markets where the technology has matured to the point that it is
commonplace.

"Open source is about commoditisation," Driver said.  "These products take a
market where there really isn't a lot of concrete differentiation between
what's out there and provide an alternative, which is exactly what open
source
does right.  Linux didn't get wildly popular because it did something new;

it's because it did what Unix did, but did it in a much more open fashion."

Defining open-source hardware

While numerous open-source computer and electronics components are available
today, only a handful of complete tech gadgets are being developed under an
open-source philosophy.  However, what defines a hardware project as being
open-source remains...  well, open.

Generally, open-source hardware has at least some of its plans available to
the
public, thus allowing others to contribute to its development or, if
permitted
by its creator, to manufacture the device themselves or even modify the
plans to
create a new device.

Always Innovating, for example, encourages outsiders to contribute to the
development of its ARM-processor-based tablet/netbook hybrid, the Touch
Book.
Weighing 0.8 kilogrammes, the device features a touchscreen, a removable
keyboard and a customised Linux operating system.  It can run for 10 hours
on a
single battery charge.

The schematics for the Touch Book are freely available at
alwaysinnovating.com.
"We also provide advanced support and consulting services for companies that
want to build their own devices starting from our design," said chief
operating
officer Alexandre Tisserant.

"We build reliable, innovative products.  By opening them to other
companies,
you get the necessary feedback and contributions to improve them and design
new
ones faster and more easily."

Gadgets for enthusiasts

Unsurprisingly, such gadgets are geared towards and appeal most to
technology
hobbyists.

Several thousand Touch Books have already been sold - mainly to this crowd,
said Tisserant.  Yet Always Innovating is now looking to sell to vertical
markets.  Because the Touch Book is highly customisable, it could easily be
integrated into taxis or police cars, or connected to a hospital's network
as
an always-on portable device for medical staff.

Meanwhile, a team of graduate students at Stanford University is working on
another open-source gadget: the Frankencamera.  This Linux-based digital
camera
can be programmed to control exposure, flash, focus settings and more.

"We want to make this camera for graduate students doing research that could
use
a programmable camera, or undergraduates doing courses in programming," said
Andrew Adams, one of the developers of the Frankencamera.  "This project was
inspired by our frustration with trying to program cameras."

Not all such projects catch consumers' imagination, however.  The Neo
FreeRunner smartphone and its supporting Linux-based platform, Openmoko, is
a
good example.  Openmoko made both the operating system and the design plans
for
the internal electronics and housing available for others to use and improve
on.

Openmoko ended support for the project in April 2009, according to product
manager William Lai.  "As time and technology progressed, the funds involved
in
competing with Apple, RIM, Android and so on were out of our scope.  The
technology outpaced our ability to deliver on a timely basis," he said.

However, the Openmoko platform and FreeRunner phone are still being
developed by
a volunteer community.

Distribution difficulties

With software, anyone can download a copy of an open-source program and try
it
out straight away.  It's equally easy to give feedback to its developers and
contribute code to fix bugs or add features.

The open-source model in software development thrives on this constant
distribute-and-test process: the more copies of the code you can get into
the
hands of testers, and the quicker you do so, the faster the project's
developers can get feedback in order to fix and improve the software.

But applying the open-source model to hardware isn't as straightforward.
Prototypes can be expensive to produce and distribute for evaluating and
testing
purposes, so development doesn't progress as quickly.

"When you get your first piece of home-made hardware, you can do some
modifications.  But you'll have to order a new piece with your new design.
This takes time as well as money," said Tisserant.

In order to seriously challenge the traditional proprietary model of
developing
hardware, a manufacturing timeframe of less than a week would be ideal.
"The
easier and faster you can test, the easier and faster you can learn," he
said.

Turnaround time could be reduced with the use of affordable rapid
prototyping or
fabrication machines.  For example, the body of the Frankencamera is
laser-cut
acrylic; anyone with access to a laser cutter can take the plans and make
their
own.

Intellectual property issues

But does the question of who owns what in an open device pose problems,
particularly if several people contribute designs?

Michael Arrington, founder and co-editor of the TechCrunch blog, might think
so.

His open-source CrunchPad got off to a promising start in July 2008 as
TechCrunch partnered with Singapore-based Fusion Garage to develop and
manufacture the web tablet.  In late 2009, however, the agreement fell apart
when Fusion Garage announced its intention to sell the CrunchPad without
TechCrunch's involvement.  Fusion Garage CEO Chandra Rathakrishnan claimed
that his firm had sole intellectual property rights to the device, while
Arrington said the companies shared the rights.

Fusion Garage plans to sell the device as the JooJoo tablet.

TechCrunch has responded by filing a lawsuit.  At the time of writing,
Fusion
Garage was taking pre-orders for the JooJoo, which is expected to go on sale
by
the summer.

We wondered what legal steps Stanford's Frankencamera developers had taken
to
protect their hard work.  Adams said: "In this regard, life is easier when
there's no money to be made.

"Because everything we do is as students of Stanford University, we have
pretty
good legal avenues available to us if someone should try anything nefarious.
But so far, the vast majority of what we've heard from the general public is
interest, encouragement and offers of help."

Making money (or not)

Tisserant acknowledged that hardware companies pursuing the open-source
route
might have lower profit margins, but he said they can benefit from lower
research-and-development costs and shorter development cycles.  "The goal is
not
to keep your secrets and live on endless royalties, but to share the
knowledge
and grow with fast innovation," he said.

Although Openmoko no longer supports the FreeRunner phone or the Openmoko
smartphone platform, Lai said the firm hasn't given up on open-source
hardware.  "For the past year, Openmoko as a company has been focused on
bringing open source in front of an audience of mass appeal," he said.  "We
want
to continue to design products using open-source elements."  One example Lai
gave was the WikiReader, a pocket reader preloaded with Wikipedia content.

The developers of the Frankencamera said they have no business plan because
their project's ultimate goal isn't to sell a product.  Their goal is to get
the schematics of Frankencameras into the hands of students at other
academic
institutions, so they can build their own version at minimal cost and use it
in
their coursework and research.

They hope their project will convince manufacturers that letting users
program
their cameras adds value and makes people want their product more, because
there's a community of enthusiasts constantly adding new features to it.

"How successful would the iPhone have been without the App Store?"  Adams
said.
"Now why can't you write and download apps to your camera?  Our personal
goals
are to do interesting research, and give other people the tools to do
interesting research, not to make money."

Extending the reach

Jeff Orr, a technology analyst with ABI Research, said that for an
open-source
hardware project to succeed in the marketplace against proprietary,
commercial
products, it still needs "some ownership - some individual, some entity -
that is providing the workforce to assemble and distribute these products.
Once
I've bought it, what's the support like?  Is there a warranty if something
goes wrong?"

Still, he is cautiously optimistic about the potential of open source at
gadgets' research and development stage.  "Could the open-source model
challenge the commercial research and development process?  I think so,
because
you create a larger pool of knowledge that any individual or organisation
could
learn from," said Orr.

But will an open-source gadget ever take off in the same way that Firefox
and
Ubuntu have, becoming a household name among mainstream gadget users?
Open-source gadgets will become more common, predicted Driver, but he is
unsure
whether we will see one that appeals to a wide user base and can challenge
an
equivalent proprietary hardware product.

As for whether open-source gadget design will revolutionise their
development in
the way the process has for software, it's probably much less likely - at
least for the foreseeable future, said Driver.


Technical telepathy: 09969636745
Saints are not always saints; sinners are not always sinners.






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