Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Open Source Hardware (3/5)

In Musings on Jan 9, 2010 at 00:01

(This is part 3 of a 5-part series on open source – parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

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On the side of open source hardware (OSH), the situation is less rosy.

The tricky part with OSH is that it’s about “stuff”. And stuff costs money right from the outset – to collect, to manufacture, to move around, to keep in stock, to use, to dispose of (OSS also has costs, btw – but indirectly, in the form of invested time, effort, and expertise).

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with money. Once money enters the picture, you can do things like add a margin to cover the costs. Or add a fat margin to cover more than the costs. Or pay others to get involved and bring in specific expertise. Which is way cool. Now we’re talking economy. And sustainability. And incentive. And of course: bread-on-the-table, i.e. income.

Oh yes, this is potent stuff. Markets. Resources. Competition. Profits. Investments. Capitalism!

The reason I’m pointing it out is that it’s a fundamental difference between OSH and OSS. And it’s obvious – everyone knows that to use software, you just gotta go to the proper site and download it. And to use stuff, you gotta purchase it and wait for it to be delivered on your doorstep (or go shopping and take it home, whatever).

We’ve all just been through the Christmas season. Shop ’til you drop. Pay and get.

But wait a minute… that’s for any kind of stuff. What’s “open source” hardware got to do with this? Well, you see, that’s where it gets a bit unusual.

Open source hardware means that the producers “open up” about what they are doing. In the electronics / physical computing / kits domain, the idea is to make the designs for the products openly available, often in the form of schematics and printed circuit board designs.

What’s the point? Well, you’re not locked-in, presumably. If you don’t like the design, you could take it and modify it according to your own wishes. Amazingly, this doesn’t seem to happen a lot. I can think of three reasons: economies of scale, interface conventions, and tools/skills.

The production of printed circuits is very much driven by economies of scale. It’s relatively expensive to create all the masks to produce good 2-layer PCB’s, with silk screens, via’s, solder masks, etc. So it makes a lot of sense for a supplier to have a certain number of PCBs made at once, and then sell individual boards at a cost lower than one-off production could. This is the traditional manufacturer’s sweet spot – it just happens to apply to tiny shops as well now, instead of just car manufacturers.

And hey, you know what? It’s great: all these manufacturers do us a service, by producing tons of goods of which we only need one, at fantastically attractive prices.

Another reason for not just starting from what there is and inventing tons of variations, is that an important aspect of a design is its interface with the rest of the world. This is particularly obvious with physical computing. Once you change interfaces (whether electrical, mechanical, or logical), you risk reducing inter-operability. This doesn’t apply just to OSH – think of all the “after-market” accessories in numerous domains. Many product choices end up affecting a lot more than that product itself over time.

The third reason why OSH isn’t spurring as much collaboration and innovation is that there’s often a fairly steep learning curve involved. It took me quite a lot of time and effort to learn how to design printed circuits, and how to have them manufactured. In fact, I made a ridiculous number of mistakes along the way, and had to throw away lots of failed trials. That’s not just wasted time and effort – that’s wasted “stuff”, and real money.

So it’s not surprising that not everyone grabs OSH designs and starts tinkering with them and producing their own boards. The process is non-trivial, takes time, and wastes money. We’d much rather buy ready-made products, or at least partially-made (including kits), with all the errors resolved so we can avoid them.

Again, this is great. Some people out there are willing to do the hard work, and others pick the fruits of their labor and compensate them for it.

Just keep in mind that here too, OSH is totally different from OSS. In a way, OSH solved the problem which OSS was never able to: to create a natural mechanism for rewarding time and effort spent.

So in a way, OSH could be called a success story. OSH seems to be picking up steam like crazy these days. Need an example? Try “Arduino”.

But wait, not so fast…

To be continued tomorrow – Open? Really?

  1. There are some software projects that are attempting to make OSH easier. For instance, downloading open source hardware over the web with single push-button action. Anway, nice article!

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