But things are not that easy in case of Open Source Hardware than its software counterpart. Software can be easily modified to satisfy the whims of the creators, but in case of hardware, the implications of a single minor change can be disastrous for the overall design and even the physical integrity of the design. Taking the case of microprocessors, the hardware gates, signals and pipelines and the rest of the circuitry are intricately woven around each other in a manner no source code can be. Support is something that is only available on very small scale hardware devices. When the complexity goes beyond the expertise of a few men, people would generally bank on proprietary hardware so that in case anything goes wrong, they can claim a warranty support. Also there is an added issue that if everybody starts tweaking the hardware to make it ‘just right’ for them, there might not be software that would run on the customized hardware. Developing a worldwide community isn’t much possible in case of hardware because not everyone has access to a fabrication facility and transporting chips back and forth over courier or postal services is too slow a process in contrast to software codes that can be shared over the internet in a matter of seconds. This discourages most designers to venture out into the dark without existing, well proven designs.
Platforms like Arduino have taken the Do-it-yourself fervor from the software to the hardware part among hobbyists and designers. All the designs are available on their website for download and are not patented. This has been a hit so far. Many companies have joined the Open Source Hardware brigade like the BugLabs with their modular open source designs for mobile devices and Makerbot. The scenario has opened up in a very short time which is indeed a good sign. By 2005, there were only a handful of open source hardware projects, but as of 2011 more than 200 projects have been launched under the OSHW banner. A chip company called VIA released an open source laptop in the recent past. There’s an open source phone called OpenMoko which when combined with the Google Android OS forms a completely open source product. There have been open source mp3 players, routers, music visualisers and many more electronic gadgets apart from the robotic projects.
Open Source hardware is a way of accelerating innovation. Communities like ROS, Willow Garage, OpenWetware, Pearl Biotech, Pranav Mistry’s Sixth Sense and many more are giving a new outlook to the ways we can deal with intellectual property. It shows a lucrative alternative to developing and then locking away the product design by patenting or copyrighting it. Just when the patented products need to be publicized by the developer to potential vendors, a popular open source hardware product might just bring vendors to our doorsteps looking for design consultancy. The road ahead might be an uphill task, but isn’t impossible. Even the Open Source software had shaky and uncertain beginnings. But today, even big firms of the likes of Google are using open source software (linux) to support their vast infrastructures. This could be the next reality for open source hardware too!
Filed Under: Articles