Monday, May 5, 2008

What is open source hardware? Part 2

In the first post, I set the stage by describing what appears to be an emerging reality – open source hardware (OSHW). Of course the concept has been around for a long time, but recent developments are finally making it relevant. To summarize, OSHW is yet undefined, though there are plenty of examples out there today. OSHW feels like a decent concept that should take off, but there are still many complicated problems to overcome. For instance, the:

Open source hardware productivity problem

The problem is that open source hardware costs too much for individuals. The initial and recurring investments to participate are too large, and it drives people away. I propose four primary “investment” problems:

Knowledge: it simply takes longer to learn hardware hacking than it takes to learn to code. How many people pick up a dummy/idiot/basic/beginner guide to circuitry and are off and running with a hello world (aka the ubiquitous LED blinker / flasher) circuit in less than 10 minutes? Very few. And fewer still can push to the next stage, because the theory underlying circuit design, including I/O, architecture, buses, directional current, parallel/series, etc. expands exponentially from the initial light-flasher to the more complex.

Physical skill: like it or not, you need stamina, dexterity, and coordination to assemble electronic circuits. Not everyone can learn to be a master watch-marker overnight. Circuits are a little easier than watch-making, but they both require fine motor control, and sharp vision. Attending my fair share of NYC hackfests, makefests, hacklabs, and the like, I can attest to the common sight of guys bent over in frustration, grasping tiny little red, white, blue, green, and black wires with large, frustrated fingers. Punching keys on a keyboard feels like child’s play in comparison!

Time: making physical, real devices take longer than making intangible, conceptual objects of code. Ideas come faster than finished gadgets, just as code compiles faster than real computers get assembled. It follows that making a real circuit takes longer than sketching up code and clicking compile. Worst yet, making real devices takes patience, a scarce modern asset.

Money: if you have the previous 3 bullet points, congratulations! You probably have an engineering or science background (knowledge), played a musical instrument growing up (physical), and are unemployed (time). Now you just need money. Somehow, this seems counter to the previous 3 points – ha! In the first post, you saw that real open source hardware design takes upwards of $10,000. Unfortunately, this amount is simply too large a hurdle for most independent hobbyist tinkerers to stomach. Most people already have the equipment needed to participate in the open source software movement (a computer), but how long will it take before anyone can whip together a soldering station, layered pcb boards, and surface mounted components from materials available around home?

So the real problem here is one of barriers to participation. The reason more people don’t get involved is because they can’t. The problem is that lone individuals typically cannot achieve a sufficient level of knowledge, skills, time, and money to pull it off themselves. Most of them just give up after basic experimentation.

The rest will have to hope that by ganging together in groups, they can achieve a sufficient level of productivity, skill, knowledge, and money to pull it off. But if you invest that much in grouping together, why not just start a company? Why would you give it all away to the open source hardware community?

Part 3… collaboration rules for an open source hardware community

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