Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The End of The Open Source Hardware Cambrian Age

This is the first time in almost 3 weeks I'm evenly lifting my head up to breath, after the massive chaos of Black Friday. Now, on to the fun stuff... my project back log, which I've been dying to blog about :-) But first, I spent some time browsing around the web at some recent OSHW projects, and I had a few thoughts I wanted to share...

Two years ago, Justin and I made a prediction… that the recent round of Open Source hardware was a re-invention of the same phenomenon that happened about 15-20 years ago, with the creation of DIY homebrew electronic computers. The recent round of open source hardware seemed to have been triggered by the advent of the ever-popular microcontroller, the Arduino.

Along with this trend came the replacement of the old guard, the Basic STAMP, with the new guard, the Arduino. For the past two and a half years, it’s been chaotic, emergent, collective, and exciting. The modularity introduced by the simple decision to fix the headers on the Arduino led to an explosion in the number of “shields” that fit those pins (including that ridiculous but essential, non-standard “gap” along the digital IO side which prevents someone from accidentally inserting a shield backwards). Arduino drove a reinvention of Open Source Hardware, from an artistic perspective, and allowed projects and hacking to occur faster than ever before...

Open Source Hardware >= Arduino!

But “open source hardware” is not synonymous with “Arduino” … it stands for much more than a "breakout board" for an Atmel chip. It represents the lowering of transaction costs, cheaper hacking, faster physical computing prototyping. It’s much more. But I've noticed an increasingly disturbing trend: companies are moving in for the kill. Noticing the success of the recent Open Source Hardware movement led by Arduino, the "old guard" is striking back - but they're striking back with the same out-dated tools that made them irrelevant on the web over the past few years... proprietary tool-chains, Windows-only custom IDE's, serial debugging interfaces (not USB), and special ROM flashing hardware.

Are you kidding me? This is a complete reversion back to the horrible life we all knew hardware to be 5 years ago, before Arduino came along. I will argue a strong point: Embedded Companies Just Don't Get It(TM). ECJDGI(TM)? They don't understand the web, they don't understand what Arduino is, why it succeeded, where it is headed. They just look at Arduino, and say, "I wish that was my silicon chip on there, and not Atmel's" and *POOF* they cram out yet another crappy dev board that no one is ever going to build anything with. Shame on them. The world doesn't need more Arduino clones. I think it needs more kick-ass projects.

So I would argue that two and half years ago, we saw the Cambrian Explosion of Open Source Hardware. New shields came out regularly, expanding the Arduino platform and the system. They were sloppy, inefficient, unoptimized, and *that was the point*. That inefficiency was good - it promoted hacking, and tinkering. It forced you to NOT follow directions. And yet the entire time, the Arduino remained a bedrock platform, and projects spawned and reproduced, remixed, recombined. All was open, collaborative, and expressive.

But to what end?

The Cambrian Explosion of biological diversity came to an end (eventually - thank goodness) as the Paleozoic Era marched onward. And when it did, life forms evolved - some of them were smaller, simpler, and potentially (arguably) less diverse and more optimized in their use of energy (metabolic optimization, anyone?). Others, meanwhile, grew larger and more complex, monstrous if you will.

Is the same thing happening to Open Source Hardware?

Have we left the era of massive experimentation and entered an era of consolidation? I think so… unfortunately. I say unfortunately, because every growth spurt must steady and end, and with that end comes reduced inventiveness, less innovation, and … optimization and efficiency. Shields continue to be made, and built, and as DIY'ers venture into the world of running businesses (like my friends Limor at Adafruit and Nate at Sparkfun), they are stumbling into the dreaded theories of economics that have haunted 1000's of hardware companies before them: cost optimization. You can see this right now in the Arduino world ... instead of DIY'ers building crazy new shields that do new things, the "old guard" and "cost cutters" are moving in to mass produce the shields they think are the most profitable.

Don't get me wrong, cheaper and cheaper shields available to more people - that's FANTASTIC news! It means that the Open Source Hardware market is maturing - early innovation is being replaced with volume, efficiency, mainstream acceptance. We WON!!!

Out with the New, In with the Old

The Old Guard of embedded companies is back, and they're here to stay, displacing the temporary uber-innovative dystopian imbalance created for a brief period of time by the rowdy bands of individual DIY'ers. Open Source Hardware has reached it's full modern cycle, albeit faster than it did last time. Embedded companies, Chinese board houses, off-shore CAD designers, the industry is now in full bloom. Three years ago, I posted my first Arduino blog article - "Arduino, here I come!". I can barely believe it. The world has changed dramatically since that first article. Once a lonely, rogue band of hackers who once met in art space in the meat-packing district in NYC, the Open Source Hardware community now has a Summit, a massive annual Fair, and hundreds of suppliers and vendors!

But not everyone likes the "marketization" and "re-industrialization" of Open Source Hardware. Although costs of shields are plummeting, and a good dev board can be had for $5-10 dollars (!), not everyone is motivated just by low cost boards. Sure, many people are, but that's not the point. Just because you can get a 99 cent whopper doesn't mean you suddenly hate the taste of a char-broiled $10.50 Angus Beef burger.

Some people are motivated by kick-ass hacks, not mainstream projects.
Some people are motivated by ridiculousness, not rationality.
Some people like aesthetic design and balance, not just raw functionality.
Some people are driven by the thrill of the challenge, not just the systematization of the status quo.
Some people HATE rules and order.

Like me.

Bring on the Char Broiled Angus Beef Burgers!

Maybe I'm just hungry, but I’m going down with a fight. I don’t accept the end of Open Source Hardware innovation as the 99 cent whopper dev board. If the whole vision of OSHW just turns out to have created another excuse for a bunch of lowsy Windows-only dev boards with proprietary toolchains, horrible tech support hotlines, and mysterious libraries that have no documentation, I will be very sad.

I insist on fighting back, and making something new and different, and weird, strange, and unpredictable. That’s what makes Open Source Hardware fun and challenging to me. In fact, I think the fight itself is what it's about: constant reinvention, and pushing boundaries.

Now that that's out in the open, it's time to get back to doing what I enjoy most... hacking.

And that's what I'm all about.


Monda László said...

I've enjoyed your post a lot, it's also a great historical overview.

By the way, your fonts are pretty small and hard to read. I can enlarge them manually but it's a little bit disturbing.

Chris Gammell said...

Hey Matt!

We were talking about this post on The Amp Hour last night (episode 22). I really liked the tone of your article and the dedication to continue pushing creation out into the world. Keep up the great work!

Chris Gammell

Matt said...

@Monda - thanks a lot - ok, I'll take your advice and try to boost up the font size when i can :-)

@Chris - Fascinating dialogs! Consider me a newly-found regular listener :-) I put this on in the background, and now I'm addicted, and have been listening to your other casts all day...

Thanks for the dialog on OSHW, and my post on the End of the OSHW Cambrian Age. The Cambrian Age could have been characterized by the absence of competitive evolutionary pressures, and in that excess there was found surplus functionality and creativity. Arthropods with hundreds of legs, stomachs on the outside, long funnel mouths - funky, different, odd, wasteful?... but creative. Life had just exploded, diversity thrived uninhibitedly. Introducing competitive pressure (levels of the food chain and predators) may be akin to modern market cost pressure. Price pressure is like a trilobite with sharp teeth - it forces lesser animal variations to evolve to be competitive. Force the price of arduino shields lower and lower, to mass production, and their flexibility and functionality diminish. Experimentation is restricted, degrees of freedom reduced. A DIY'er is more likely to throw on an extra accelerometer - just for the heck of it - while a company says, shave that $15 off in the name of gross margin. Sad!