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Can open-design hardware supplant the proprietary model?

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.

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