by January 8, 2010 0 comments



On the cover page of Popular Electronics, January 1975 issue, was a picture
of box-like device in grey hues. The headline above the picture says, ‘World’s
First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models…Altair 8800’. The article
gave readers the address of the company making the kits (MITS) and its price
($379). The response to the kit was unexpected and overwhelming. Electronics
enthusiasts from all across the USA placed orders for the Altair 8800 kit.
Speaking about this unexpected reaction, Lee Solomon, the then editor of Popular
Electronics, said, “The only word which could come into mind was ‘magic.’ You
buy the Altair, you have to build it, and then you have to build other things to
plug into it to make it work.

The Altair 8800 would turn out to be the catalyst in the PC revolution that
took place over the next decade. The main players in that revolution were
hardware enthusiasts who shared knowledge and (sometimes) designs probably
accelerating the interest in PCs. They were the earliest hardware hackers. In
the ensuing rush to establish companies that followed, the culture of openness
that drove the revolution was slowly marginalized. The software world would then
lead the way in bringing openness back into the mainstream with high-profile
successes like Linux and more recently, Firefox.

This concept of openness is better known as Open Source (OS) and in the
context of software it means that you are free to view and modify the software’s
source code. The equivalent concept in the hardware world is called Open Source
Hardware (see box for definition) and lately, this concept has seen a renewed
interest. This interest is not just limited to the electronics hobbyists and
enthusiasts but also to commercial companies like Sun, Neuros, and Bug Labs,
which are enabling OS hardware to gain traction again.

Let’s have a look at some OS hardware projects.

Opening Closed Doors: OS Hardware in Commercial Products

As mentioned earlier, hardware companies are starting to open source their
products in what is traditionally a closed market. We look at some companies and
their products.

Neuros – Hack me if you can: When a company publishes a hacking guide
for its own products, and offers bounties (cash) to developers to add features
and “hacks” to its product, you have to take notice. The company in question is
Neuros Technology, a consumer electronics manufacturer based in Chicago. Neuros
manufactures two products: Neuros OSD, which is a digital recorder and archiver,
and Neuros LINK, a device that connects your TV to the Internet. Neuros’
decision to open source its products is contrary to what happens in commercial
hardware products, which are typically closed. So why did Neuros do it?

What is Open Source Hardware?

While defining open source software is relatively easy, defining open source
hardware is tricky. Open source hardware can refer to openness in different
areas: in hardware or mechanical drawings (e.g. casing of an MP3 player), in
schematics of electronic circuits (e.g. microprocessor schematics), in
layout diagrams (e.g. physical layout of components on a board), and in
firmware (e.g. source code that runs on a chip). In short, we are talking
about openness in the information connected with the hardware design.

OpenSPARC – Opening up Microprocessors: In March 2006, Sun
Microsystems open sourced the design of its UltraSPARC T1 microprocessor and
dubbed it OpenSPARC T1. Along with its successor, the OpenSPARC T2 (released in
2008), these are the first 64-bit microprocessors to be open sourced. One of
Sun’s stated goals in the OpenSPARC initiative are “to significantly increase
participation in processor architecture development and application design by
making cutting-edge hardware intellectual property freely available.”

OpenMoko- Open Source Mobile Phones: OpenMoko is the company behind
Neo1973 — the world’s first OS consumer mobile phone — and its next version,
the Neo FreeRunner. The FreeRunner is a tri-band GSM phone with a touch screen,
WiFi, GPRS, Bluetooth, and motion sensors and which runs on OpenMoko Linux.
OpenMoko’s philosophy of openness as applicable to the FreeRunner means that
‘all chips have been chosen to allow their drivers to be completely open sourced
and the schematics and the plastic (CAD) files are available as well.’

The main advantage of the FreeRunner is that the user has the freedom to
install software without restrictions, something you cannot do on traditional
closed phones.

Some of the other interesting open source hardware projects are listed below:

Via OpenBook: Via Technologies released the hardware design for a
low-cost laptop (dubbed the Via OpenBook) with WiMax support under an OS
license. The CAD files for the reference design can be downloaded by anyone for
free and copied, modified, or shared. Via also has a video on their website in
which they take apart a Via OpenBook to reveal its internals for everyone to
see.

Chumby: It looks like a small TV but it is actually an ambient
electronics device that connects to the Internet and displays different
information like weather, news, music, photos, sports headlines, etc. Chumby
uses a variety of widgets, which can be chosen by the user, to display
multimedia content. Chumby allows developers to hack its hardware or to design
customized widgets.

RepRap: Its name is a short form of ‘the Replicating Rapid Prototyper’,
and you can call it a 3D printer but this printer makes real physical objects in
plastic. The primary goal of this project is ‘to create and to give away a
makes-useful-stuff machine that, among other things, allows its owner cheaply
and easily to make another such machine for someone else.’

Benefits and Challenges
Radical concepts like OS hardware always face questions especially since the
domains that they operate in are traditionally closed. Typical questions are
about the viability of an OS business model, the wisdom of giving away
intellectual property, and so on. So, what are the benefits of and challenges
for the OS hardware model?

One of the challenges faced in the DIY space is to convince kit makers to
consider open sourcing their hardware. Dale Dougherty explains, ‘What’s
interesting about OS hardware is that it requires that a physical thing be made,
or the parts for such a thing be organized in something like a kit. You can’t
download the physical thing. However, like open source software, you can
download the plans, the designs and the documentation. Anyone could work
directly from these sources and built it [the hardware].’Explaining how OS can
be beneficial Dougherty says, ‘Increasingly, invention is going open source —
that is, you’re better off sharing your idea instead of keeping it secret.
Getting your idea out there creates value, and if it’s a good idea, you’ll know.

You’ll find people are interested in your work on a number of different
levels — as collaborators, who wish to help you improve it; as builders, who
want to manufacture it for themselves; as users, who want to get their hands on
it and use it. Instead of just selling a product, you are developing a
community’

Future Possibilities
OS hardware is gaining momentum, but what is the future going to look like? Will
it take a high-profile project (like Linux in OS software) for open source
hardware to ‘break out’? What will India’s role be in OS hardware? Our experts
weigh in with their thoughts. Dale Dougherty says, ‘I don’t know if there’s a
particular gadget or project that will be a breakout. It’s like a phase change,
and that gradually you get more people aware of what they can do themselves and
in collaboration with others, while at the same time, they become more
interested in customizing their life and the things that belong to it.It’s
possible, however, that someone becomes the IKEA of open source hardware — they
supply the building blocks for you to build all the basic things you need, and
which serve as a platform for more custom development.’

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