The rise of open hardware

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 30, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Free and open source software has a long list of accomplishments to its name. However, when the history of technology comes to be written, the greatest of those accomplishments might be inspiring open hardware. It might even be that open hardware will become eventually become even more successful and influential than free software itself.

The idea of open hardware follows naturally from free software. Free-licensed software requires hardware to run, and that hardware requires software. Yet for years, the idea was more theoretical than real, with almost all computers running proprietary firmware and, often enough, proprietary video and wireless drivers. A few small vendors offered open hardware computers, and many of them seemed to come and arrive quickly. Even Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement, took eight years to obtain an open hardware computer.

During the first years of the millennium, open hardware was known to most people for two projects: One Laptop Per Child, which developed an inexpensive computer for education in developing countries, and Coreboot (originally, LinuxBIOS), a project to develop free-licensed firmware. Both these projects, especially One Laptop Per Child were eagerly anticipated, but, through little fault of their own, both never quite met expectations.

Rather than open hardware, free software advocates of the time were more concerned with Tivoization -- the use of hardware to circumvent software freedoms, so-named from TiVo, the first company observed to use such a tactic in its hardware. When the third version of the GNU General Public License was released in 2007, it included anti-Tivoization language, much against the preferences of Linus Torvalds.

Throughout this period, open hardware was a faint hope that few expected to be realized soon. Probably the most encouraging sign was the emergence of Maker Culture, the loose collection of hobbyists whose home-built devices frequently run on free software due to a combination of economics and idealism and are displayed regularly at conferences.

Waiting for the Revolution
Today, open hardware computers are at best no more than slightly more available than they were a decade ago. in the hopes of encouraging them, the Free Software Foundation in 2012 announced its Respect Your Freedom hardware product certification, but only eight devices have been certified in three years, only two of which are laptops -- neither from a major vendor.

All the same, the times have never been better for open hardware. 3-D printers and small CPU boards like the Raspberry Pi have significantly boosted both Maker Culture and small business. As I write, for example, Pi-Top is shipping a modular computer based on the Raspberry Pi, along with instructions for users to print their own cases.

The interest in the Internet of Things -- that is, in smart devices that communicate with each other -- also seems to be using open hardware. For instance, DoBots, a Dutch robotics company, is preparing the Cornerstone, which adapts European and North American wall outlets to make smart devices out of whatever is plugged into them.

However, by far the greatest development for open hardware is the alliance between crowdfunding and free software that has developed in the last few years. The idea of funding projects through donations or multiple patrons has obvious ties to free software, and, after beginning as a way for amateurs to fund their projects, has now evolved into an alternative to venture funding for small businesses.

Crowdfunding campaigns to fund free software campaigns often do poorly. A few years ago, by my count, only 7.5% of such campaigns reached their goals.  However, with hardware powered by free software, the success rate can be many times higher.  According to Josh Lifton, his site, Crowd Supply, has a success rate of just over 50%, although part of that figure is undoubtedly due to the fact that the site filters campaigns for success and helps wannabes to develop business plans.

In fact, many of the hardware campaigns on Crowd Supply not only reach their fundraising goals, but exceed them. For example, USB Armory, a security-based USB operating system, raised twice its goal, while Numato Opsis, an open video board, raised 172%. Interestingly enough, two of the greatest success stories are free laptops: the Librem laptop, which raised 107% of its goal, and the Novena, which raised over three times its goal.

Typically, these projects are started by engineers who learn business and manufacturing as they go. Some have potential to develop into a major company, but most of those that succeed will probably remain a small business with under half a dozen employees. Yet with hundreds of these projects on the large crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, it seems almost certain that the next five years should see a new business niche based largely on open hardware.

Of course, these trends are still in their early todays, and how they play out will take several years to learn. However, considering that their funding is relatively small, many of the businesses bootstrapped by crowdfunding should be able to reach profitability years earlier than startups based on venture capital. All other signs are promising enough that Richard Stallman, who distanced the Free Software Foundation from open hardware in 1999, praised its potential in endorsing Crowd Supply in July 2015.

Free hardware has taken much longer than free software to arrive. However, by all indications, it is finally arriving. As Lifton said when Stallman's endorsement of Crowd Supply was made, "the lines between hardware and software are blurring. It only makes sense to consider them jointly rather than separately.”

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