By Steve Castellotti
North Beach, San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood, is famous for the quality and wide variety of its many restaurants. From colorful marquees scattered up and down Columbus to the hushed, more dimly lit grottos hidden down side streets and back alleys, there is no lack of choice for the curious patron.
Imagine then, having chosen from all these options, you sit down and order your favorite dish. When the plate arrives the waiter places next to it a finely embossed card printed on thick stock. A closer examination reveals the complete recipe for your meal, including hand-written notations made by the chef. Tips for preparation and the rationale for selecting certain ingredients over others are cheerfully included.
Flipping the card over reveals a simple message:
“Thank you for dining with us this evening. Please accept this recipe with our regards. You may use it when cooking for friends and family, or just to practice your own culinary skills. You may even open your own restaurant and offer this very same dish. We only ask that you include this card with each meal served, and include any changes or improvements you make.”
Sharing the “Secret” Sauce
Having been raised in an Italian family myself, I can assure you that there is no more closely guarded secret than the recipe for our pasta gravy (the sauce). But I can’t help but wonder how such an open sharing might affect the landscape of a place such as North Beach. If every chef was obliged to share their techniques and methods, surely each would learn from the other? Customers would benefit from this atmosphere of collaboration in terms of the taste and quality of their dinners.
These many restaurants, packed so tightly together as they are, would still be forced to compete on terms of the dining experience. The service of their wait-staff, the ambience, and cost would count for everything.
For the majority of customers, knowledge of the recipe would simply be a novelty. In most cases they would still seek a professional chef to prepare it for them. But to the aspiring amateur, this information would contribute to their education. A new dish could be added to their repertoire.
An experienced restaurateur could no doubt correct me on any number of points as to why such a scenario would be a poor business model and never could or should be attempted. But just across town, throughout Silicon Valley and indeed across the globe, in the realm of technology, this exact model has been thriving for decades.
Open Source in the Software World
In the software world, developers have been sharing their source code (the recipe for the programs they write) under licenses similar to the one outlined above on a grand scale and to great success. The Internet itself was largely constructed using open platforms and tools. Mobile phones running Google’s Android operating system are now the most popular in the world, with complete source material available online. And in 2012 Red Hat became the first open source company to achieve a billion dollars in revenue, with customers from IBM to Disney and Pixar among their roster.
The benefits are many. Developers can leverage each others’ work for knowledge and time saving. If you want to build a new web site, there’s no need to write the web server or common routines such as user management from scratch. You can take open versions and start from there. Even better, if you have questions or run into trouble, more likely than not someone else has, too, and the answer is only a search away. Most importantly, if the problem you found indicates a flaw in the software (a bug), then a capable coder is empowered to examine the source and fix it himself or herself. And the result can be shared with the entire community.
There are parallels here to several fields. Similar principles form the basis of the scientific method. Without the sharing of procedures and data, independent verification of results would be impossible. And many discoveries result from iterating on proven techniques. A burgeoning do-it-yourself community, a veritable Maker Movement, has grown around magazines like Make and websites such as Instructables.com. New inventions and modifications to popular products are often documented in meticulous detail, permitting even casual hardware hackers to follow along. Electronics kits and prototyping boards from companies like Arduino are based on Atmel microcontrollers plus open circuit designs, and are often used to power such projects.
Recently, our company, Puzzlebox, released the Orbit, a brain-controlled helicopter. The user begins by setting a display panel to the desired level of concentration and/or mental relaxation they wish to achieve. A mobile device or our custom Pyramid peripheral processes data collected by a NeuroSky EEG headset. When that target is detected in the user’s brainwaves, flight commands are issued to the Orbit using infrared light. One can practice maintaining focus or a clarity of thought using visual and physical feedback.
Beyond novelty, however, lies the true purpose of the Puzzlebox Orbit. All source code, hardware designs, schematics, and 3D models are published freely online. Step-by-step guides for hacking the software and electronics are included. Methods for decoding infrared signals and extending mechanisms to operate additional toys and devices are shared. Creative modification is encouraged. The goal is to promote the product as a teaching aid for middle and high school sciences classes and in university-level programming and electrical engineering courses.
This business model is itself a bit of an experiment, much like the restaurant described above. There is little preventing a competitor from producing a knock-off and leveraging our own recipes to do it. They might even open their doors just across the street from ours. We’ll need to work hard to keep our customers coming back for seconds. But so long as everyone abides by the rules, openly publishing any modifications of improvements made on our recipe, we’re not afraid to share the secrets of our sauce. We only ask that they include the original material with each dish they serve, and include any changes or improvements made along the way. We’re willing to compete on cost and dining experience. In this way we hope to improve the quality and flavor for everyone.
Openness and The Internet of Things
Today, communities such as Kickstarter and others tapping into the power of openness and crowd-sourcing are fueling a lot of technological innovation. The next era for enterprise is revolving around The Internet of Things (#IoT), machine-to-machine (#M2M) communications and even the Industrial Internet (#IndustrialInternet).
One strong proponent of innovation and thought, Chris Anderson, is renowned for having his fingerprints and vision on trends as they bloom into movements. Anderson is committed and energized in this Make-infused world. His latest book, “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution”, eloquently outlines the “right now” moment with makers. “Hardware is the new software”, opening up the brink of the next age of the Internet, where devices and machines become connected. Cloud, agile apps, and embedded design hardware (systems on chips, microcontrollers, or smart devices) are converging and paving the next generation of integrated products across the fabric of devices.
“The real revolution here is not in the creation of the technology, but the democratization of the technology. It’s when you basically give it to a huge expanded group of people who come up with new applications, and you harness the ideas and the creativity and the energy of everybody. That’s what really makes a revolution.
…What we’re seeing here with the third industrial revolution is the combination of the two [technology and manufacturing]. It’s the computer meets manufacturing, and it’s at everybody’s desktop.”
Excerpt credited from Chris’s Anderson’s “Maker: The New Industrial Revolution”
With that said, we enter the next age, where hardware is the new software.