Monday, February 2, 2009

Zen and the Art of Open Source Hardware - Day 1

The problem
Open Source hardware. I've been writing up Chris, Mike, Justin, Matt, Chris, Mark, Omar, and my (wow, that list is getting longer and longer) notes from all of our discussions about "Open Source" hardware... and it hit me:

Open Source hardware is not about circuits and schematics and whatnot. I mean it is to some extent in the fact that it's the "hardware" electronic version of "software." But it's also about economics, capitalism, innovation, collaboration, and business models. At an even more basic level, Open Source hardware is about ideas, sharing, building, and exchange of tangible things. It's hard to specify precisely because it's complicated - what's open source, what isn't? But it's only complicated because many mainstream people just aren't used to it yet. Well, over the past few months, I've been writing together a "book" with Justin collecting all of my thoughts, and right now it's a downright mess.

A complete mess... because it just doesn't *feel* right. I've interviewed and read "big think" books by professors like Karim Lakhani, Eric von Hippel, Clayton Christensen, as well as writings by software visionaries like Stallman and Linus. I've talked to fellow folks like me in the community, like Limor, Phil, and Paul. I've met fascinating people along the way, especially at the Santa Fe Institute, and Institute for Advanced Study (impressive, to say the least, if not humbling!)...

But something feels very, very wrong. It just doesn't make sense. "Open Source hardware can't work in today's modern economy" I've been told. "It violates the central ethic of capitalism, proprietary innovation." It just can't work... Or so they think.

The intervention
Well, my head is getting ready to explode. And every time it does, there's just this one little thing I do, that I've always done when I need to sort things out:

Drive across the country.

I'm leaving for LA on Tuesday. I'll be in Las Vegas on Wednesday, somewhere in Kansas or Colorado on Thursday... and who knows what next. Chris is coming with me... and we're going to bring Gamepacks, Arduino's, Illuminato's, TouchShield's, and plenty of scrap paper. We'll take turns driving... and we're going to drive from LA to CT over the course of 6 days.

And all we're going to do is talk about Open Source hardware. In the spirit of open source, anyone's invited :) Just email me if you want to come!

The plan
I'm going to answer some nagging questions that I've had... by sifting through all my notes and articles I've collected over the past few months:

What is open source, really?
Why do some academics and theoreticians claim it violates capitalism?
When can Open Source work? When can't it?
Why innovation and why is sharing good?
Are people supposed to make money from Open Source?
Licenses, the law, patents, and transaction costs - why do they exist, what are they good for?
What changes given the economy and the recession - can Open Source help?
Who does Open Source? Who are the names, faces, and institutions involved?
How does a beginner get involved? How does an experienced person stay involved?
What are the units of analysis in Open Source hardware? Labor, parts, circuits, etc.?
Where does Open Source hardware begin and end?
What are community economics?
What makes Open Source software work? Who does the work and who doesn't?
Why would large companies want to use Open Source hardware or not?
Why would educational institutions adopt Open Source ideals? Open Source hardware?
What is "Open Source capitalism" and an "Open Source business" and can they succeed?
What are similar concepts to Open Source that might lend some ideas?
What is the Open Source brand, label, and "image"; what does it mean when something gets called "Open Source"?

Well, here goes!


Chris said...

Just look out for the truck that has an Illuminato blinking out crappy pop music in morse code from the passenger window!

Can't wait!

Mike Gionfriddo said...

I'm soooo jealous! I wish I could come :o(
I promised my friends I'd climb Mount Washington with them... I was going to use my TouchShield as a display for my compass, barometer, thermometer and possibly an avalanche detector.

Matt said...

Ha! well, here goes nothing... I'm getting pretty excited :)

Q said...

What great questions...

My thinking is that Open Source is like Sports Sponsorship.. Somewhere someone is bankrolling the process, they may be doing it for sheer enjoyment or have a plan that once it has a brand then they leverage that brand. ie selling support is like selling the tee-shirt or the half time advertising.

I have wondered what the recession will do, drive the adoption of open source, see the creation of more as clever people are un-employed, see the dryup of corporate sponsorship...

Please keep us posted.


alexandra sonsino said...

Great idea and some really great questions we're asking a lot over in Europe. If your travels push you all the way to London, would be great to chat!

Alix said...

sounds great, im excited to see this develop! Come to Baltimore!

Matt said...

@Mike - I've never been to Mount Washington... though literally everyone drives around with those bumper stickers...

@Q - I really like the metaphor of sports sponsorships, it's like the "value" of open source isn't direct, maybe it's a side effect, or related to something else? and i especially like your thought about the recession. the wallstreet journal the other day (or maybe nyt?) had an article about how we're in an economy of "free" services... and that's driving people to get used to "free" things, when in fact all along they were somebody else's "investments". so can OSHW stand on it's own, or is it always a sponsored activity? hmmm...

@alex - i wish i could afford the ticket to london, really. actually, i noticed there's a maker faire over there sometime soon, and i was seriously considering trying to save up money for the flight over. are you going do you think?

@alix - i'm originally from baltimore... go orioles! although i'm still sorry about cal ripken leaving. and brady anderson. i don't think i've seen a full baseball game start to finish ever since he retired...