The arrival of open hardware

Up and Coming

© Lead Image © artqu,

© Lead Image © artqu,

Article from Issue 200/2017

We look at some of the new open hardware projects underway.

Work like you are living in the early days of a better nation. – Oysterband

For years, free software advocates have dreamed of hardware whose specifications and firmware are free-licensed. Yet, largely because of the costs of production, open hardware has never succeeded. Today, though, we seem to be in the first stages of an open hardware culture – and already the diversity is intoxicating.

Like free software 20 years ago, open hardware has little appeal to commercial technology companies. Small companies like bq and Slimbook have experimented with preloading free software, but even their efforts have used proprietary firmware and hardware. However, unlike free software, open hardware has previously been too expensive to be produced by individuals.

So what has changed? The question can be answered in a single word: crowdfunding.

With crowdfunding, those who dream about open hardware have a shot at making their dreams a reality. A newer company like SiFive can develop a free-licensed chip that can eventually lead to further experiments in open hardware. Companies like Design Shift can dabble with open hardware that traditional sources of funding would be unlikely to support. Even more significantly, dozens of individuals have a chance to launch small businesses that give them a chance to make a living doing what they love. If none of these ventures are likely to be the next Apple or Microsoft, few care as long as they can make enough profit to survive and develop their next products.

These developments have enough potential that Crowd Supply [1], a relatively small site compared to Kickstarter or Indiegogo, has even started specializing in this intersection of open hardware and crowdfunding, tutoring the wannabes in the reality of business and selling the resulting products online – thereby offering a partial solution to the problems of distributing new products. It even has a section of its site labeled Open Hardware.

According to the Crowd Supply blog [2], the combination of crowdfunding and open hardware has distinct advantages, including:

  • A source of income for engineers turned entrepreneur that includes not only crowdfunding, but also volunteers.
  • Increased quality and rapid improvement thanks to the availability of specifications and software.
  • The ability to patch, port, branch, and revive existing products quickly.
  • An existing market in the open source and maker communities that has a personal interest in a product's success.
  • Credibility from peer reviews.
  • Market validation of concepts that might be expanded into other products.
  • A low entry cost and (at least compared to traditionally marketed products) a low cost of product failure.

If some of these benefits sound familiar, they should. Open hardware shares many of these benefits with free software. Thanks to crowdfunding, projects that once seemed impossible now have a chance.

New Pioneers

To give you an idea of what is happening, here are some of the open hardware projects now underway.

  • Keyboardio: Currently, in the middle of production, Keyboardio has designed what is probably the ultimate keyboard (Figure 1). Mounted on hardwood, Keyboardio's Model 01 is an ergonomic keyboard with four different positions, and mechanical keys, almost two-thirds of which are individually sculpted. Both keys and backlights are programmable, and the whole is regulated by an Arduino microcontroller. The company is committed to quality, which has caused delays in production, but should be worth the wait [3].
Figure 1: Keyboardio's Model 01 is intended as the ultimate keyboard and is entirely open.

Keyboardio is also noteworthy for having benefited by the release its firmware. With the Model 01 still in production, its firmware was recently massively improved by a Hungarian enthusiast who saw the specifications on GitHub.

  • EOMA68 laptops: Remember the laptops with bamboo frames in William Gibson's cyberpunk stories? EOMA68 is making them for real, adding recycling and self-repairs to the famous four software freedoms and providing the 3D printer schematics for the base as well (Figure 2). The laptops also include operating systems housed in old PCMCIA cases, making them easy to swap in and out. The company expects to ship by August 2017, with the Free Software Foundation's Respects Your Freedom Certification for at least some of its offerings, meaning that it will be a completely free device [4].
Figure 2: Laptops that are not only free but also recyclable.
  • ORWL: ORWL is described as a physically secure computer. Developed by Design Shift, it includes an encrypted hard drive and an option to use Qubes OS, a distribution that brings an unprecedented level of security to the desktop (Figure 3). The computer requires a security key and closes down if the key is moved too far away. A metal mesh surrounds the CPU, and if the mesh is broken, the computer's memory may be wiped in some cases. ORWL uses coreboot, and its firmware is free-licensed but has been criticized for using a proprietary microcontroller – a circumstance that Design Shift hopes eventually to change [5].
Figure 3: ORWL is a computer that specializes in physical security.
  • SiFive: A major obstacle to open hardware is the difficulty in finding CPU chips with free-licensed firmware. Even when such chips are available, suppliers have a habit of switching them for cheaper proprietary chips. Founded by the inventors of the relatively new RISC-V chips, SiFive designs custom free-licensed chips in partnership with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Limited (TSMC) [6].

Open-V [7] also has been raising funds for RISC-V chips, while HiFive1 [8] has completed an Arduino-like board using RISC-V chips – both, presumably, with the assistance of SiFive. Already, RISC-V chips seem to be increasing the number of free software products.

These are just a few of the open hardware projects available. Others range from tools for hobbyists to devices suitable for individual desktops to small businesses. They include personal cloud devices, radios, a $50 smartphone, USB password managers, a bench power supply, a mini-laptop, an open source 3D printer, and many more, with others coming into existence every week.

Not all these open hardware projects will meet their campaign goals. Others will fail to come to market or falter after the release of their first products. However, these outcomes are typical not only of open hardware but of any new products. The point is that, win or lose, the creativity and diversity being displayed shows just how much attention is being paid to open hardware today – much of it escaping the notice of the mainstream technology media.

The Challenges of Production

Fundraising, of course, is only part of the challenge for a new hardware vendor. Production, too, can be a major challenge, with unexpected delay following closely on delay. New vendors often have to face near-monopolies from large rivals. Parts may be unavailable because they are reserved for large corporations. Many manufacturers are uninterested in orders of under several hundred thousand, and others give small orders low priority. Some manufacturers have even been known to delay or cancel orders because larger ones have been received. Such obstacles mean that any new product, free-licensed or not, are likely to be delayed or fail through no fault of their own.

Additionally, more than one open hardware vendor has found that frequent trips to Asia, or long stays, are necessary to ensure quality and to respond quickly to emergencies. Both the Keyboardio [9] and EOMA68 [10] blogs detail some of the tribulations of modern production for small vendors, and they can make for harrowing reading. The fact that people persist in their efforts to bring open hardware to market despite the difficulties shows just how dedicated they are.

Despite these difficulties, open hardware vendors soldier on. In coming months, I will look at some of these vendors and the wonders they produce. Meanwhile, take a look at the crowdfunding sites and the wonders on display. For anyone with an interest in open hardware, the experience is like looking at a SkyMall catalog for techies. Finally, after all these years, open hardware is happening at last.

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