Why Open Hardware?

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Why Open Hardware? By Patrick McNamara, Open Hardware Foundation, at http://www.osbr.ca/archive.php?issue=10&section=Ar#A4:

Lourens Veen who is on the board of directors for the Open Hardware Foundation or OHF summarized the answer to this question as follows: "Essentially, this is a problem of freedom. We users want to be free to use the objects we own for any purpose and in combination with any other objects or software we choose or create. We should not be limited to using it only in ways that the manufacturer or some other, external, entity deems appropriate."

Several benefits can be achieved when hardware is made open to its users:

You can use it as you see fit: The quote from Lourens is actually a paraphrase of freedom 0 from the Free Software Foundation: the freedom to use software however you see fit, made in the context of hardware. This is effectively the philosophical underpinning for "Why Open Hardware"? The remainder of the Free Software Foundation's freedoms apply, to some degree, to the hardware realm as well.You can figure out how it really works: This corresponds to the FSF freedom 1: the freedom to study how the something works and to adapt it to your own needs. Far from being a simple matter of curiosity, being able to understand how a device works can enable you to make much better use of it. For instance, if there are two ways of performing the same operation in a device, being able to understand the internal operation allows you to determine the more efficient of the two ways for a given situation.

You can make it better for everyone: This echoes the FSF freedom 3: the freedom to improve the hardware and to release your improvements so that others may benefit as well. This is the most altruistic of the philosophical reasons for open hardware. Much of the innovation throughout history has been due to individuals building on preexisting ideas and sharing the results. Building on preexisting hardware is no different.

You will notice I skipped over freedom 2: the freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor. It doesn't map quite so well into the hardware world; not for philosophical reasons so much as for practical ones. In the hardware world, especially that of semiconductors, the financial barrier to making copies of hardware is such that redistributing physical copies is not generally viable for an individual. In order to enable freedom 2, you have to embrace a number of more practical, and commercially interesting reasons for using open hardware. These are the reasons a business might be interested in producing a device based on open hardware.

Open hardware can sell more units: By making a device open, you gain access to market segments that would not be available otherwise. Over the past few years a number of home firewall/router devices have been found to be running a version of Linux. Further, in some cases, it is possible to modify the operating system running on these devices to allow them to provide other functionality potentially unrelated to their original purpose. In these cases, the ability to modify the functionality of the device has been discovered by reverse engineering. Still, you now have people buying units, sometimes several, to use for other reasons. A unit with a lower barrier to modification, due to available open documentation, will generate an even higher level of interest within certain groups leading to sales that otherwise would not have occurred.

Open hardware has the potential to speed development of new devices: Most complex hardware devices are made up of many smaller building blocks many of which are not specific to that device, just like most programs use general purpose libraries for many functions. Large hardware companies build up libraries of hardware building blocks over time, but in many cases multiple companies end up re-implementing the same basic hardware blocks. As an analogy, I don't write my own SSL library when I need SSL functionality in software; I go pull down the OpenSSL library and use it. Why should I re-design a hardware multiplier when I need one for a micro controller ALU (arithmetic logic unit)? It should be noted that this effect of open hardware, reducing design and implementation time by providing readily-available libraries, tends to benefit small companies more than large ones. This can have the effect of reducing the barrier to entry into a market segment and allowing more resources to be focused on the innovative part of the product which in turn helps increase competition. The community will help you support your product. When talking about personal computer hardware, you run into the problem of drivers. Anyone who has tried to use cutting edge hardware in Linux, BSD, OpenSolaris, Plan 9, or other more esoteric operating systems is keenly aware that much new hardware is supported poorly, or not at all. Many companies may not see a sufficient ROI (Return On Investment) for developing drivers in house for non-Windows operating systems. And in truth, it may not be financially justifiable. However, if I as an end user cannot use brand X hardware on my nice shiny new Linux box because I can't get drivers, I am going to go by brand Y hardware for which I can get good, working drivers even if the brand Y hardware provides less functionality. The company making brand X cards just lost a sale, all because there weren't drivers available. This is not due to a lack of people willing to write drivers for such hardware. It is due to a lack of the necessary documentation on how to make the hardware work." (http://www.osbr.ca/archive.php?issue=10&section=Ar#A4)