I always enjoy reading the musings of my company’s CTO, Eric Larkin. I found his most recent post about open-design hardware particularly interesting.(Not to mention, I appreciated the throw-back to the days of HeathKits.) Essentially, his latest post posed the question: Will open-design hardware eventually replace the current proprietary model of design?
If software can do it . . . .
I see where Eric is coming from in suggesting this is possible. Linux and other open-source tools have proved that you can improve software much more quickly with a collaborative, open development process, and we’ve gotten to the point where there are profitable businesses who only publish open-source software.
There are a few cases where this has worked for hardware as well. For instance, the M1911 pistol—the classic “Colt 45”—has been produced world-wide using an open design for decades. Similarly, the AK-47 submachine gun was designed in Russia, but is now produced world-wide from readily available specifications. There are also some standards-based commodities (like plumbing) that have been created with an open-design.
Challenges to establishing open-design hardware as a consumer model
While I can see (and like) the idea of an open-design hardware community, I personally feel there are some barriers when it comes to this sort of approach for hardware.
For example, one hallmark of successful open-design tools is the ability to create a community of developers who are continually improving that core design with a series of successive patches that move the product forward successfully. This works really well in software, as it is a matter of writing code, and there aren’t physical investments that need to be made. In hardware, that mechanism for packaging change is underdeveloped. It’s all physical product, so it is much more expensive to change – you can’t just get in and mess around.
Another challenge is that hardware has a much stronger culture of protecting innovation with patents and trade secrets, whereas software pretty much invented the pirate.