Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Open Source Hardware, courtesy of Sparkfun

Until about 2000, "software" was pretty much implicit whenever the term "open source" was mentioned. Sure enough, open source software could happen because people everywhere could code easily and share that code. All you needed was a computer and an internet connection, which you already had.

Fast forward to 2002. People begin to toss around the idea that open source might be applicable to hardware as well. Jim Turley (and others) think not. The fundamental concern here is that the requirements to develop open source hardware are much higher. Essentially, you're creating a tangible product and you need tangible building blocks. People will have to pay for these building blocks, and why would they do that? With open source software, the development cost was virtually zero. With open source hardware, the individual engineer will have to sink money to build a product, right off the bat. Prototyping costs money. Development costs money. And should the product work, manufacturing and distributing the tangible product will cost money as well.

So what's the issue? There's a huge hurdle that open source hardware faces that software never did—the host of issues that come with being hardware and being concrete. Does that mean we shouldn't do it? For some people, the answer is yes. But I always say, wherever there's a hurdle, there is great opportunity in finding a way around it. And that is exactly what Sparkfun did—and with that, taking open source hardware to a whole new level.

Now it's 2003, and Nathan Seidle, an electrical engineering student at CU-Boulder, needs a replacement microcontroller and finds it incredibly difficult to get these online. Like any smart guy facing a challenge, he turned it into an opportunity to stock quantities of the products he used, making them available on a user-friendly, easily accessible website called Sparkfun. This way, many more users like Seidle no longer needed to scour the ends of the earth for the products they needed. And what an opportunity it has turned out to be! From the Sparkfun website: "Now in its fifth year, the company employs nearly three-dozen people and maintains a growing office on the outskirts of Boulder. We add new products all the time! If you've got a recommendation or something you can't believe we don't already carry, let us know! sparky@sparkfun.com So enjoy! Take a look around. You may already have your Ph.D. in Material Physics or you may be a curious kid who's ready to wire up your first kit - we've been there and we know how to help."

So back to Jim Turley and the impracticability of open source hardware. Sparkfun found a market of DIYers and engineers who were more than happy to front the costs of innovation. Perhaps Turley took too pessimistic an approach to people. Perhaps the community is indeed willing to foot the bill if it means they can contribute to something greater. Or maybe they just love building their own hardware. I don't know. But it seems like Sparkfun is growing rapidly with an ever-widening fan base who look to them for all their engineering needs.

What's interesting is that before Sparkfun, nobody supplied these parts, and now there are quite a few sources—the likes of Make and Adafruit, to name a couple. But by far, talking to folks who do this stuff, it seems like they've always got at least a few pieces that they "got from Sparkfun". Sparkfun, as the supplier, has arguably enabled the progress of open source hardware, founded on a simple need to pursue independent electronic projects. Somehow they are able to offer low cost products that would typically require high quantity orders from the traditional retailers like Jameco, Digikey, and others. All this is catered to the individual, pioneering, and innovative engineer.

They also have a knack for picking useful and practical components and devices from the wide and sometimes boundless universe of "potential parts". Most of their components have a little bit of a "that's cool" factor, and even if not all of them have immediate applications, they still deliver on stimulation and imagination. Check out the Port-o-Rotary. Or the opening of the WiiMote. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Knowingly or not, Sparkfun was the first to fill a supply gap that allowed engineers to make open source hardware a very real revolution. Not to say others like AdaFruit, Make, or Arduino were not part of shaping the open source hardware landscape that we have today, because they are. But without Sparkfun opening its doors in 2003, many of us would still be sitting here wondering if Jim Turley was right all along.

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