Will open hardware face the same dilemma as the Arts and Crafts Movement?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 30, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

An unexpected benefit of crowdfunding is that it is encourages the development of open hardware. A couple of years ago, when I counted the Kickstarter campaigns that mentioned free and open source software, there were more than ten times the number that were developing hardware than software, and my impression is that the ratio has not changed much today. Yet while I appreciate seeing open hardware starting to establish itself, I worry that open hardware might go the way of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and defeat its larger aims because of what is needed for success.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction to mass production in architecture, manufacturing, and art. Flourishing between 1880 and 1920, it favored simple, well-made -- preferably hand-made -- architecture, furniture, and furnishings, often inspired by medieval design. Members of the movement such as William Morris revolutionized the general taste of their times, and many of their designs are still popular today.

Yet in one sense, the Movement failed in the middle of its success: Its members hoped to make their designs cheaply enough to be bought by workers, improving their lives by introducing beauty into everyday things. However, manufacture by hand is generally more expensive than mass production, and that meant that the only market for Arts and Craft products were the well-to-do.

A similar contradiction, it occurs to me, could be at the heart of open hardware. Not only do many open hardware producers aim for aesthetic designs, but, more importantly, they have their own idealistic goals of making the software that runs their products freely available. In some cases, they also want to make their hardware as customizable as possible. By necessity, they rely on hand production, partly because they produce too few units for any established firms to take orders from them. The result is often a price tag so high that, while it sometimes allows the producers  to make a living, it also interferes with their more idealistic purposes.

Two examples
A potential example of this contradiction is Purism. Under the slogans "Beautiful Freedom," and "a laptop that respects your rights, Purism is developing two high-end laptops, one with a thirteen inch screen, and one with a fifteen inch screen. Both have a pleasing minimalist design, with software that is free-licensed from the CPU on up, and both are temptations to anyone who wants a laptop and cares about software and hardware feature. In fact, if you do not hunch over and drool at the prospect of a Purism laptop, then tech is probably the wrong industry for you.

And yet -- and yet -- the fifteen inch model starts at $1850, the approximate price of a high-end Macbook Pro at my local mall, and at least four times the price of a low-end laptop. Order the best of everything, and the price jumps to $3513. The price alone is enough to make even the most devoted software freedom pause, but when I consider the difficulties that a small hardware manufacturer can have with consistent supply (http://lwn.net/Articles/606100/), I also start to worry about whether, with the best faith in the world, Purism can deliver all it promises.

Another example is Keyboardio, which is developing programmable ergonomic keyboards with individual mechanical switches for each sculpted key. The keyboards promise to be an open hardware supporter's delight, with both keys and the lights behind them full programmable. Mounted on two solid pieces of maple, the keyboards display an elegant simplicity that is reminiscent of Arts and Crafts designs.

To me, Keyboardio's features are irresistible. Most days, I spend a minimum of eight hours in front of a keyboard, so why shouldn't I work my own way, and with a piece of practical art? In fact, after writing about the fledgling company, I ordered one for myself.

Yet, at the same time, I couldn't help but notice that, now that Keyboardio's crowdfunding campaign is over, the price will likely be at least $325. That's sixteen times the price of the keyboards I used to buy once or twice a year, throwing them out as they broke down.

In both these cases, the goals and the construction promise to be everything a free software advocate could desire. Yet if the promotion of free hardware in general is a goal, the prices posted by both Purism and Keyboardio are a serious barrier to the success of their ideals. Like the products of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Purism's laptops and Keyboardio's keyboards might allow their manufacturers to make a living for years to come, but at a cost of keeping the results of open hardware out of the hands of the general public.

Caught in the contradiction
These observations are no reflection on Purism, Keyboardio, or any other open hardware developers. Small hardware developers have no control over the cost of parts, even when they are making their parts themselves, and I would never begrudge them the right to a fair return for their labor. Such developers are in no way exploiting customers, or doing anything for which they should be ashamed. If anything, they should be praised for their efforts to make the ideal of open hardware a reality.

Still, the potential contradiction remains. Tech is a well-paying industry, and, as the success of Purism's and Keyboardio's crowdfunding campaigns show, there is at least some market for their products. Moreover, in Keyboardio's case, you could argue that their products should last for years, and be cheaper in the long run than a succession of throw-away keyboards.

Right now, however, open hardware products are still in the proof of concept stage. Success may increase the market for them, but whether the increase can be enough to lower the prices and make them mainstream is another question altogether. The organization of hardware manufacturing around the world might even make mainstream success impossible.

Unless open hardware can find a way around this dilemma, it may be condemned by its nature to be a noble failure. Like the Arts and Crafts Movement, without a solution, at best it will become a boutique success, selling to those who can afford its ideals, and missing the buyers who need and would appreciate those ideals the most.

I can only hope that I am wrong.

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