Open-source hardware is eating the world

Our good friend and founder Adam Benzion explores the latest advancements in open hardware and what it means for our future.

Open-source hardware has been making headlines in industry publications and tech communities for years, but only now is it finally enjoying the same mainstream adoption that the Creative Commons and open-source software have enjoyed for over two decades. With growing numbers of hardware designs publicly available to study, modify, distribute, and replicate, resistance is futile!


Move Over Patent Trolls

Much like its immediate software relative, open-source hardware uses existing hardware design licenses rather than creating new ones, to co-innovate and share it forward. In a stark shift from the usually guarded patent world of hardware, we find a new environment for the sharing of ideas. Literally hundreds or thousands of hardware designs—circuit design, component integration, machines, tools, processors and practically anything that can be physically invented—are getting published and made available for anyone to use. There are many upsides to this, although it also seems to be encouraging more red-faced patent trolls to sue unsuspecting users of open-source hardware on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, because someone, some time ago, was already awarded a patent. (It’s just my opinion, but if you filed without the intention to ever build or share your invention, you deserve to get out-innovated.)

You’re Either In Or On The Way Out

Right now it seems like everyone is joining, but you might be less enthusiastic if you’re a Fortune 100 that established itself on the grounds of proprietary technology. Remarkably, however, many of the companies I would have bet on being slow in adapting into this new world are actually fully endorsing it. From Intel, to Atmel, Freescale, and TI, these silicon tankers have proved agile and responsive, powering most of the kits we all know and love (and maybe by doing so, they will start opening up some of their core chip designs?) Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising: They’ve been publishing reference designs for their boards for decades as a way to make it easy for customers to get started. And now they’re also learning from open-source electronics royalty like Arduino, while juggernaut creative hits like SparkFunSeeed Studio and Adafruit, show how to further adapt, share more, and be part of a community.

I’d rather build on the shoulders of giants, share everything we’ve learned, and learn a thing or two from others. At the end of the day, SparkFun is successful because of the products, value and service we deliver, not our IP portfolio.

Nathan Seidle Founder & CEO, SparkFun Electronics

And it doesn’t stop with electronics. Just take a look at Toyota’s CES 2015 announcement. The company is following the example of Tesla Motors, making all of its 5,680 patents related to fuel cell technology available, royalty-free, to anyone in hopes of driving more innovation. Sure, you can argue that all of this is done in the name of self-servitude: They save on R&D resources while broadening the market, and eventually sell more products as a result. Autodesk is also working on a similar initiative with Spark: an open platform that allows any hardware manufacturer, software developer or material scientist to automate, simplify and improve 3D printing. Regardless of the motivation, this is happening, and the beauty of it is that it taps the collective crowd for exponential brainpower and innovation.


A Freeway Without Speed Limits

By distributing hard earned engineering IP via the Creative Commons Attribution and the GNU General Public License and a widespread “Copylefting” attitude, innovators are transforming the world of hardware creation at speeds we’ve never seen before. The implications reverberate across the playing field, affecting everyone from hardware hackers to major players, and beyond.

  1. Startups. With little to no hardware engineering experience, startups can now hack their way into building hardware prototypes, fully capable of connecting to the “internet of things”, skipping months and thousands of dollars traditionally associated with such creations.
  2. Community. Open-source hardware is creating new communities that share recipes of creation. For me this became a personal obsession. Myself and Ben Larralde, co-founders of Hackster, are helping people everywhere co-create and learn open-source hardware. We see a massive wave of hardware innovation resulting from this movement, with firmware, schematics and inventive combination of electronics being developed, shared, redesigned and shared again from every corner of the planet in speeds we never seen before.
  3. Kids. If you are a parent like me, you are starting to see how this movement is accelerating your child’s abilities to design complex creations. My daughter who is only 4 years old can assemble strangely beautiful hardware creations using littleBits and thinking through “what if” scenarios. What happens when she’s 10 and can actually build complex blocks using LittleBits version 8.0? Does she even buy hardware at Best Buy or just build it herself because it’s more fun and possible better? When everything is open, big changes are inevitable.

Hardware innovation is driven by demand chain not supply chain, and open hardware provides the creative engine.

Eric Pan, Founder and CEO of Seeed Studio

Why Is This Happening Now?

We’ve lived through many decades since the computer revolution, the invention of the microprocessor, and the mainstream Internet. Maybe it’s not a surprise that all of the technology required to create software and hardware has finally come together, simplified and affordable to almost anyone on earth. Today, all you need is free cloud computing account from Microsoft’s Azure, an Intel Edison or Spark’s new Photon, basic programming skills and an access to a 3D printer. Voila, you are well on your way to creating a basic, functioning, piece of hardware. Unfathomable even 5 years ago. When I built my first hardware company in 2010, much of the above was generally unavailable.


Disrupted Again

Built on the heels of open-source software and the new sharing economy, open hardware is a disruptive evolution. It will create massive changes to how hardware innovation is co-created and monetized in rapid new cycles. It will shift the tight hold of old power that was jealously guarded by the few, to the new power which is open, participatory, and peer-driven, forceful as it surges.

But the real change in open-source hardware will come when you see a consumer product released as fully open-source — not something for programmers, hackers and hobbyists. The day that Samsung release a phone or a GE a washing machine that ships open will be the signal that the value in hardware openness is here to stay.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn by Adam Benzion along with the help of Nathan Seidle, Tom Igoe, Sean Geoghegan and Eric Pan. You can also learn all about and explore a wide-range of the latest Maker projects here.

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