Open source hardware is ready to go mainstream

Here comes cheaper, more functional gear

Mayank Sharma

Out of all the many things I detest, the worst is paying for items and still not owning them.

With the world the way it is, I have no option but to disobey the laws of economics and open my wallet for gadgets that curb my freedom to use them to their full potential, and then pay for a dressed-up upgrade every six months.

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Which is why it gives me immense pleasure to report that the last bastion of exclusive hardware ownership has been breached. Open source hardware has reached its tipping point.

If the time wasn't ripe for this revolution, news of an open source camera from a university wouldn't have made it past the campus science journal. But Stanford's Frankencamera project is popping up all over the radar.

The idea is simple – take the principles of open-source software and apply them to a low-cost assimilation of off-the-shelf camera parts tied together with a Linux based OS that's available to everyone for modification.

Forget proprietary APIs and SDKs, this is the holy grail for people that spent their school breaks soldering radios.

Heading for the mass market

When (not if) this union of open hardware and software specifications trickles down to consumer-grade cameras, you'll be able to super-size your point-and-shoot to take RAW shots, or use more pre-configured modes for shooting at night, or make use of the ability to adjust the auto-timer settings and more.

Just like with open source software, you don't need to meddle with the innards of the camera: pick it off the shelf, connect to the internet, and fetch the wisdom of the community in a firmware upgrade. Or just order a supercharged modded version that'll shoot under water and has a hot shoe for attaching a custom flash.

Frankencamera isn't a lone example. The Arduino computer project started as an inexpensive prototyping system and is now accessible to electronic students worldwide thanks to dozens of clones that spawned because of Arduino's open specs.

Then there's the RepRap self-replicating open spec 3D printer that's 50 times cheaper than commercial alternatives. Hardware maker VIA has released a reference design for a netbook, MIT plans to do the same with its solar-powered car and there's even an open source graphics card under development.

So open source hardware definitely makes sense to the garage mechanic and the independent researcher. Using non-proprietary standard hardware helps them keep their costs down.

But why would traditional hardware companies want to spend money developing a new piece of hardware and then just release the specs? It's a complete reversal of their current modus operandi.

Business opportunity

They'd do it because open-source hardware actually presents a business opportunity for the hardware vendors.

Take the example of Cisco. When a licence violation forced the company to release the specs for one of its routers, sales picked up. A dozen or so third-party firmware projects mushroomed around the router and made it do things way beyond Cisco's wildest imagination.

In a similar vein, backup company BackBlaze has just taken open source hardware to another level. The company sells unlimited online storage for about £3. Since existing commercial storage solutions wouldn't allow it to keep its expenses in check, it decided to assemble its own 67TB 4U storage pods.

Its hard work cost it $117,000 for one petabyte (that's 1,048,576GB) storage rack. Dell retails the same amount of storage for $826,000, Sun for $1million, and EMC for over $2.8million. You do the maths.

Beat the charts

These are the kind of savings you need to beat the charts in the current cost-conscious market. So what does the company that has seemingly cracked the code do? Just like you'd expect, they show off with fancy cost comparison charts and stacks of storage units on their blog.

Then they take a leap into the future and explain in great detail how you can copy their design! They have it all – videos, specs and wiring diagrams. They even tell you how to dampen the vibration from all the disks. From a traditional business model point of view, BackBlaze has just committed commercial suicide.

But the pointy-haired nay-sayers fail to see that by letting people work from its design, BackBlaze is offloading the R&D burden on to more people than it could ever pay for on its own. That's something you can take to the management, and not have it thrown back in your face.

For these reasons, open source hardware is finally on the verge of breaking through into a store near you. Depending on how they play it, far-sighted hardware vendors will receive either a pat on their back, or a slap in their face.

What is certain, however, is that they can't afford the opportunities any longer.