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Lifting the Lid on Open Source Hardware

Clive Thompson describes how an Italian group applied open source principles to hardware for the Arduino microcontroller circuit board, a device that can monitor and respond to sensors, control small motors and the like.  Over 50,000 units have been sold worldwide since mass production began.

This is NOT open source software that runs inside of the hardware.  Instead, the Arduino group is open-sourcing all of the schematics and hardware design files for its circuit board, in addition to the software for it.  Anyone is free to build or modify their own hardware based on these schematics and designs.  It’s another example of the trend among tech-savvy consumers to reverse engineer, hack and customize their consumer devices (such as iPhones, Tivo’s and Furby toys).

Although open sourcing is well established for software, it would be considered heresy or even suicide in the hardware business.

How can the Arduino group take this approach?

  • They are academics in Italy, and want to build a reputation.  They don’t answer to a board of directors or shareholders.
  • Manufacturing is now a commodity, and it’s extremely easy for foreign low-cost manufacturers to knock off any hardware.  The Arduino approach beats the counterfeiters at their own game, by treating ALL manufacturing as a commodity.
  • The Arduino circuit board is a low-function simple device.  In isolation, it doesn’t provide a huge value-add.
  • The hardware designs are licensed under an open license that requires all user modifications and improvements to be licensed under the same license terms.  Specifically, the license to the hardware designs is a Creative Commons “Attribution – Share Alike” license.  This Share Alike condition is the dreaded “reciprocity clause” that concerns many businesses.  It prevents other businesses from making proprietary modifications, and taking all the value of an improved device.
  • The group reserved to itself a critical piece of intellectual property, namely the trademark and trade name ARDUINO, so that the Arduino group can make sure its brand is not harmed by low-quality copies of its circuit board.
  • Hobbyists and others contribute bug fixes and improvements without pay, and the Arduino group receives early learning of new and unique uses of the hardware.

The article describes two economic models:

  1. “Sell your expertise as the inventor,” in the form of consulting and support.  This is a familiar open-source model, long used in the software world by companies such as Red Hat, a major supplier of the Linux open source operating system.
  2. “Sell your device by trying to keep ahead of the competition.”  This it the age-old time-to-market strategy.  Thompson’s article points out that, in practice, the foreign knock-offs using the Arduino open source schematics and designs have low quality.  The Arduino group stays on top of of the competition by developing know-how that keeps it ahead of others.

Thompson presents a tantalizing vision going forward. The media have evolved from one-way offline broadcasts into vast collaborative communities (e.g., blogs and their readers’ comments; WikiPedia).  Similarly, hardware design will become community-driven, with the actual fabrication of hardware becoming a mere commodity.

The Arduino project is an interesting first step, but there is still a long way to go.

(Source: Build It. Share It. Profit. Can Open Source Hardware Work? by Clive Thompson, Wired Magazine)