Intro to Open Source Hardware
WTF is open source hardware?
Why “open source hardware” instead of just “open hardware”?
Do I care?
Open source hardware is on the rise, and enormously. At the bottom of this post you’ll find a bunch of great links to content on open source hardware topics created over the last couple years, which will give you another few perspectives. And I’m going to do my best to explain the subject and a little bit on our involvement in it here at Upverter.
First off, open source vs. open. I’m not sure how big a debate this really is anymore, but it comes down to intent and language, as they do mean different things. Think of the word “open” as describing the word immediately to its right. For example, open software is software that is easy to interface with, or that saves to XML files, or that provides a really kick-ass API – basically, the software is open to being hacked on. Add the word source to the mix and its a different story, open source means that all the bits i need to build my very own, hack in a feature, or debug an issue, are public and available. In the software example the program is probably also very open, but the important part is that the source (the stuff required to build one) is open and accessible; and its the exact same in hardware land. Open = good documentation, lots of programmable IO, open standards, open communication, etc; While open source means usable schematics, CAD files, firmware, etc, etc, all the bits needed for a user to build their own. Expect to see lots of established businesses releasing under open hardware licenses, while the hackers and hobbyists will use the open source hardware licenses.
Now before I tell you what this word game is all about, I want to give you a couple of reasons why you probably care. The first big one, is the absolutely tiny number of leaps in human understanding and knowledge made through closed information. Open information and shared knowledge allows us to “stand on each other’s shoulders, not each other’s toes.” (Dennis Allison), and while we accept the need for the commercial electronics market, and understand their need to privacy and competition, remarkable things can be done through working together. We are also nearing a point of critical mass (it happened with computers and open source software a decade ago) where there are enough people with enough great ideas that they can start providing the market with competitive and open alternatives (Apache, MySQL, etc in the open source software world). And lastly because not every great idea or invention exists to make money. These are ideas that can only exist in an open and shared environment, these projects are peoples passions not their day jobs, and they should be encouraged. So you care because you’re a hacker and you want to exist in an environment with open and available knowledge and designs, or you’re a bookie and you want to know what to bet on next, or you’re a consumer with pain points and you realize that a community enabled to solve your problems, just might, given the right tools and the right critical mass.
So, cut the flowery shit – what is OSHW? Open source hardware is a label given to an electronics project that is released and made public in such a way that you, average Joe hacker, could build your own. There is a bit of variance here, but purely speaking that means publishing everything: all the manufacturing details, CAD files, firmware, HDL code, schematics, and even the source code running on the widget. Not at all unlike tweaking, compiling and installing your very own port of Apache – you should be able tweak, and create your own port of an OSHW design.
OK cool so I just copy and paste one of those license file things and I’m good to go?
Thats the idea! Now being all squishy and new the licenses are still catching a bit of flack, and its not clear which license to use, and there is no good way to share your design files… BUT! Zipping all your bits and pieces together and saying its OSHW is a pretty damn good start. And even still, I’d wager we aren’t too far away from seeing a lot of unification on these last few issues.
Note: From a legal perspective you aren’t really well protected from people pillaging your designs. Unlike source code, copyright does less to protect a schematic and the instantiation of it (a circuit board) from being taken, manipulated or mass-produced. So a big part of the holdup is finding ways to protect businesses so they can release their products without too much risk. But individual hackers should be good to go. For most hackers, at the end of the day its all about sharing knowledge anyway!
Where does Upverter fit?
We have always been garage hackers. I’ve personally torn apart, hacked, blown up and gotten fried by more appliances, toys and household widgets than any child could, and still expect to make it to adulthood intact… But as a business I guess we, a little bit, stumbled into this space. We thought it would be great to try and build some tools that improve the hacker experience; and sure enough right around the time that we’re thinking this is a great idea, the scene is exploding with projects, ideas and neat new labels. So, in a sense, we’re riding the wave along with all the hackers out there. However, you can count on us to make the collaboration, sharing and shoulder standing a whole pile easier. We like to think our tools will be a catalyst to make this market explode (in a good way!).
In the coming weeks I’ll try to talk a bit more about the movement, how our space is developing, and where we fit. But for now: check out the links, buy a $20 kit and a soldering iron, build something cool, and share it with the world. I promise, once you get started your inspirations will be limitless.
Open Source Hardware Articles