OSHW: Whats Missing?

  • There are just as many students attending electrical engineering or technologist programs as software engineering programs.
  • We are surrounded by more electronics than software, because software requires electronics, while lots of electronics exist on their own.
  • People seem content to buy cellphones but build their own web browsers.
  • There are maybe a few hundred OSHW projects, yet hundreds of thousands if not millions of FOSS projects (Github alone claims 1.5 million repos).
  • How many people are doing OSHW? Versus the number doing FOSS?
  • Electronics is far older and tends to be far more open than software. You can take apart a toaster with a screwdriver, just try taking a screwdriver to Microsoft Word…
  • Electronics had a hacker boom once during the Radio Shack days, long before FOSS ever took off. Why did it end? Why didn’t it go viral? What was missing?
  • FOSS hasn’t always existed. Prior to the mid 90’s there were almost zero open source software projects.

So whats missing? Whats wrong the the open source hardware guys? Why no mecca of sharing? No open cellphones*? Why doesn’t DDWRT run on open hardware? Why haven’t you solved more of the problems in your life with a soldering iron? I don’t have perfect answers to any of these questions, or even good answers really. But we have noticed a spark. There are people working hard to create a great and powerful OSHW community. The hackers with soldering irons want an ecosystem and a community. They want to collaborate and share and grow exactly like FOSS has. And that’s the reason why we are here. At Upverter we are trying to breathe life into the movement and give those hackers what they need to become a great and powerful force of knowledge, sharing and cool hardware. We are betting pretty big on OSHW becoming huge and as a result we spend a lot of time talking about whats missing. And here is the best answer that I’ve got.

  • Sharing. There is no good way to share schematics, parts lists, symbols, decals, hookup instructions, or PCB files. Basically everyone is on their own and starting from scratch. How do you build on each other if you don’t know what anyone else has done?
  • In-Band Communication. This is akin to commit messages in software land. Why did Joe change a resistor? There is no good way to document why I’m rewiring a chip. Or document that I’m doing a bug fix. And there is no history either, you have to keep everything in your head, always. Just looking at a schematic it isn’t always clear why things have been done in a certain way – blocking people from using each others work.
  • Collaboration & Merging. Its virtually impossible to work together with another user on a big design. In software land you just merge textual changes together, but in hardware there is no such thing as diffing, merging, or real-time collaboration. This makes it impossible for two people to work together on a design, which makes it nearly impossible to build a big design.
  • Focal Point. Its not really a technical requirement, and lots of other websites have attempted to become this, but they all seem to devolve because they are missing a connection to the issues above. Back when FOSS was very young people shared code on their personal websites. But then SourceForge came along and it seemed to focus the community and the effort; OSHW needs a SourceForge.

That might be it. Its not a big list, and there are probably lots of social and learning curve problems that will come up along the way. But really, I think if there was available software satisfying the list above we would be looking at a very different OSHW landscape. At Upverter we are focused on filling these voids, but despite talking with hundreds of you we aren’t entirely sure what you want. To be honest we don’t think you know what you want either, so we are taking our best guess. BUT (and this is a big one!) if you do know what you want, or have any feedback or opinions on the list above, please by all means contact us. We truly want to build whats best for the OSHW community, what you need, what you want, and whatever is stopping you from going viral.

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