The Rise of Open Hardware

Open Hardware – Challenges

© Lead Image © Stasyuk Stanislav, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © Stasyuk Stanislav, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 216/2018
Author(s):

Changes in funding, manufacturing, and technology have helped move open hardware from an idea to reality.

Like free software, open hardware was an idea before it was a reality. Until developments in the tech industry caught up with the idea, open hardware was impractical. Even now, in 2018, open hardware is at the stage where free software was in about 1999: ready to make its mark, but not being developed by major hardware manufacturers.

As late as 1999, Richard M. Stallman of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) downplayed the practicality of what he called free hardware. In "On 'Free Hardware'" [1], Stallman suggested that working on free hardware was "a fine thing to do" and said that the FSF would put enthusiasts in touch with each other. However, while firmware is just software, and specifications could be made freely available, he did not think that either would do much good because of the difficulties of manufacturing, writing:

We don't have automatic copiers for hardware. (Maybe nanotechnology will provide that capability.) So you must expect that making fresh a copy of some hardware will cost you, even if the hardware or design is free. The parts will cost money, and only a very good friend is likely to make circuit boards or solder wires and chips for you as a favor.

Although the comments on Stallman's short essay mention an early attempt to clone a Pentium II, most of the responses agreed with his conclusions. The idea of open hardware continued to float around, but for another decade almost no progress was made. For many years, the greatest signs of interest were the release of refurbished computers and mobile devices with proprietary firmware replaced – a useful, but self-limiting trend.

However, during that decade, technological trends began to lay the groundwork for open hardware. During that time, free software changed from a fringe idea to a technology mainstay. Other endeavors began to imitate free software's licensing and collaborative development. For instance, the open access movement began to advocate making published academic papers freely available, instead of restricting readership to the subscribers of expensive journals [2]. As open source software proved itself a valuable tool for slashing development time for commercial software and other products, the idea of open hardware gradually became less far-fetched.

Still, open hardware would not have become more commonplace without solutions to the problems observed by Stallman and others. During the early years of the millennium, these solutions gradually fell into place.

The Crowdfunding Alternative

As Stallman pointed out, although free software can be developed for no more than the cost of a computer and an Internet connection, manufacturing hardware can be expensive. Raw material, hiring experts, and storing and shipping hardware add up to a cost that is beyond most people's means. In fact, they are beyond the means of many small companies, as well. These costs also mean that small, practical equipment or products with a limited market may not be profitable enough to be worth developing and bringing to market.

However, these traditional manufacturing economics began to be challenged with the popularity of crowdfunding. With crowdfunding, potential developers can test the audience for a product by asking for donations to fund development. More importantly, developers do not have to have the money themselves or sell some control of their efforts to traditional investors. As a bonus, crowdfunding seems to work best with the transparency and interaction typified by free software, where many open hardware developers have been active for years.

Admittedly, more crowdfunding campaigns fail than succeed. In 2014, I estimated that only 7.5 percent of Indiegogo campaigns succeeded [3]. However, targeted campaigns have a higher success rate, and expertise has accumulated to improve the odds. One site predicts campaign success from a dozen questions [4], and sites like Crowd Supply [5] have greatly increased the success rate of open hardware by working closely with would-be entrepreneurs. Although considerable effort and time go into successful crowdfunding campaigns, funding of open hardware is now more of a possibility.

Perhaps the largest problem that remains with crowdfunding is that campaigns for open hardware seem more likely to succeed if the target is under $2 million. More can be raised, as proven by the Ubuntu Edge project [6] – an open source software campaign, although not an open hardware one. The Ubuntu Edge phone received $13 million in pledges, but it also fell well short of its goal of $32 million, the level of funding that might be raised for such a project through venture capital. Possibly, open hardware is for now limited to small companies, even with crowdfunding.

The Supply Chain Changes

At the same time as crowdfunding was getting started, alternative manufacturing was being established. In the last decade, the do-it-yourself Maker Movement [7] has taken form, increasing the average developer's access to expertise. Developers who lack experience themselves can often find the information they need online or at a local meeting.

The Maker Movement has also given rise to a supporting supplier cottage industry. Originally aimed at hobbyists, sites like Adafruit [8] have proven equally useful for beginning entrepreneurs, especially since they sell smaller quantities than some traditional suppliers.

One of the major products sold by these new suppliers are single-board controllers, such as the Arduino [9] and Raspberry Pi [10]. Over the last few years, these controllers have gradually become more powerful, so much so that the CPUs are available for less than $50. Should a single board be insufficient for a product, others can be chained as needed. Arduino boards are particularly useful for open hardware developers because they include the software for flashing firmware. Additionally, both Arduino and Raspberry Pi have sites for community exchange of knowledge and specifications, much like open source projects.

Still another development that has aided open hardware is the creation of 3D printers. Now, for a few thousand dollars, developers can not only produce their own parts, but do so on demand, which means that they do not have to keep track of large inventories or find a place to store them. Parts produced by 3D printers are not always durable or heat resistant, yet they can sometimes free developers from dependency on traditional manufacturers.

Open hardware development remains more expensive than free software development and probably always will. However, today, the infrastructure is beginning to support it. Since about 2010, open hardware has become steadily more possible to an extent that was unimaginable at the turn of the millennium.

Inexperience vs. Monopolies

Even with more favorable conditions, another obstacle remains: bringing a product to market. Bringing any new product to market is difficult, but delivering open hardware is even more so because of the simple fact that most open hardware entrepreneurs have a technical rather than a business background.

This situation has been a constant theme with open hardware. For instance, in 2012, Aaron Seigo of KDE fame began attempts to produce Vivaldi, a KDE-based tablet [11]. Two years and $200,000 of his own money later, he abandoned the attempt. Even a last ditch attempt to salvage something from his efforts by producing an engineering board failed.

Vivaldi's troubles began with the impracticality of manufacturing in Europe. Financially, manufacturing in Asia seemed a solution. Unfortunately, communication problems required constant, hands-on supervision. For example, manufacturers were not oriented to free software and hardware and would replace free-licensed parts with cheaper proprietary ones without bothering to inform Seigo.

Additionally, the small scale of Vivaldi's production run was of limited interest to most manufacturers, who were used to runs of several hundred thousand units. At times, parts were unavailable, having been reserved for large manufacturers like Apple.

Similar problems and delays are reported by Luke Leighton, who has been struggling since 2016 to bring a line of recyclable computers to production [12]. Keyboardio's Jesse Vincent and Kaia Dekker did manage to bring their open hardware keyboards to market, but it took several years of constant trips and setbacks to do so, as described in detail on the company blog [13]. Among the memorable moments Vincent and Dekker describe is a supplier's inability to understand their refusal to ship substandard parts, and their discovery that no business in China was possible during the Lunar New Year celebrations.

Some manufacturing problems can be overcome by persistence. But the problem of near monopolies in manufacturing hardware can only be worked around. Even more importantly, as Seigo observed, "There isn't much business experience in the free software communities," so such issues seem likely to continue.

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