Defining Free Hardware

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 25, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Most Linux users have heard of the Four Freedoms that define free software. But where is the corresponding free hardware definition?

The Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) has tried to develop one, but it is unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, it is too verbose, and like many documents written by committee, somewhat disorganized.

Second, as I realized when writing about Len Leighton's EOMA68 laptop, a free hardware definition needs to be oriented towards giving all users control over their computing. Free software's Four Freedoms can ignore this aspect, because only programmers generally exercise them, but free hardware will be used by people with all levels of expertise.

With these points in mind, here is my attempt at a definition of free hardware. It is not meant to be definitive so much as to encourage discussion of what I believe is an increasingly important topic:

1. Free hardware must use free software to operate for everything from firmware to user interfaces. This is a difficult goal, especially since computer chips rarely use free software, but I am talking about the ideal. A manufacturer may choose, of course, to have different models of the same device, some that meet the definition of freedom and some that do not.

2 .Free hardware must use free standards. Users must be able to choose the hardware of their choice, instead of being restricted to a certain manufacturer's hardware.

3. Free hardware must be designed so that any part of it is accessible and replaceable by users. In many cases, this requirement might be best met by a module design that allows replacement parts to be swapped in and out with difficulty. However, sealed cases of the kind often found in tablets and phones are unacceptable

4. Free hardware must include free and complete documentation of every aspect from integrated circuit boards and .stl files for 3D printing of parts (if applicable) to user guides. This requirement can almost be ignored in free software, but in free hardware it can be an absolute necessity if users are going to have full control.

5. Free hardware must be built to last, and not designed for planned obsolescence that forces users onto an upgrade treadmill. Individual parts should be replaceable without replacing the entire device. Whenever possible, it may use recycled parts, frames of bamboo or plywood, modular construction, or anything that keeps pieces out of land-fill -- naturally, the more the better. New releases should occur only when genuinely new designs or features are added, and be as backwardly compatible as possible.

In isolation, some of these conditions may seem peripheral to the definition. However, keep in mind that the point is to allow users the greatest amount of freedom and control possible, and they should make more sense.

Similarly, if the standards are high, trying to follow them will produce better results than if they are relaxed. If a device falls short of these standards, It may at least be freer than if the standards were lower. The Broadcom chip in the Raspberry Pi, for example, is not completely free, but it is freer than it would have been if the manufacturers had not made an effort for as much freedom as possible.

However, I consider the free hardware definition a work in progress, so if you have any additions or corrections, I would appreciate hearing them.

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