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Home » Applications & Technologies » The Future of Open Source Hardware
Applications & Technologies

The Future of Open Source Hardware

By Lynnette Reese, Mouser Electronics

Entrepreneurship and technological advances tend to choose the path of least resistance to reach a goal. In electronics, Open Source Hardware (OSHW) is a path of least resistance. Open source hardware will seep into commercial use and be supported by it, just as open source software has with the commercial support of Linux in embedded applications, Apache web servers, and the Android operating system.

Commercial use of open source software (OSS) was adopted as a foundation in embedded design. Products were based on OSS, but subsequent development beyond the operating system was not always shared, or if sharing occurred, it was delayed in order to gain market advantage. The future of OSHW looks good, since open source is a proven model, birthed in academia and fostered by the capability for social interaction, sharing, and openness via internet forums. OSHW removes barriers by providing online documentation, often at a lay-person’s level, as well as a fairly reliable means of support through altruistic–minded volunteers. OSHW leverages the social side of humanity, and vice versa.

OSS has widespread commercial benefits. Android, an operating system, negates the need to re-invent the wheel for mobile hardware manufacturers like Samsung and HTC. It also has a similar look-and-feel across all platforms, so users do not have to relearn the OS on a new device. Without royalties, Android allows phones to be sold at lower prices. Phone makers benefit greatly from a robust Android system, and many "volunteers" in this maturing open source project are in fact paid employees.

Semiconductor manufacturers also pay or foster volunteers to work and contribute on open source hardware projects that include their processors. They are still doing this in embedded Linux, because a processor is useless without software to run on it, and Linux has no royalties. As OSHW grows, the building blocks are free (including shields, capes, booster packs and other physically and technologically modular expansion boards.)

Electronics aficionados (nerds) have been working DIY projects like Heath Kits since the late 1940s. Characterized by ads in the back of magazines, these kits really picked up in the 1970s. The nerds met physically at swapmeets (flea markets for enthusiasts) to trade, sell things, and exchange ideas. This community has expanded to include a very diverse fan base, and meets in online forums and at events like SXSW or Maker’s Faire. And major electronics catalogs, like those from Mouser Electronics, are now online (mouser.com).

OSHW began in academia. For example, both Arduino and Raspberry Pi were created as a means to further education in aspects of embedded hardware, mainly because there was little access to embedded hardware in the wild, and just the opposite for software. To engender interest in hardware, "modern" OSHW started out as an accessible means for education, where little had existed before in the post-Heath Kit era.

A Different Kind of Integration

High levels of integration in semiconductor chips accomplish a similar goal of providing ready-made solutions, especially when tested software stacks are provided. However, accessibility tends to be limited by lack of documentation or easily accessible support to masses of regular people. There simply isn’t enough manpower for any corporation to personally assist those approaching a steep learning curve. OSHW mitigates barriers not only by providing documentation at a lay-person’s level, but also with support forums. OSHW leverages the social aspects of the Internet in these forums, and includes sharing experiences, information, and advice. Commercial business models are struggling to harness the social benefits of the Internet, with most efforts only focused on marketing. Those who have gotten a board up and have completed a project or two, have a wealth of knowledge that enables them to direct others, informally improve documentation, identify bugs, and suggest fixes. And hours spent working on a problem seem more valuable when the solution is shared.

Patenting the Wheel

Patent protection was a great idea to reward those who worked hard, and also set up the notion that ideas are not free. Invented around 3,500 B.C., a patent on the wheel would have expired before causing disruption in business and technology growth if it were still in effect today. The humble "wheel" in electronics today can be likened to a fundamental building block that is either too obvious and should not be allowed protection, or is protected for too long with respect to the present day growth of technology. Patent trolls further exploit and retard innovation, to the detriment of all’s. Open source, however, is as free as the wheel. Open source licenses are an anti-patent, an inoculation against patenting. It is no wonder that open source was and is a catalyst in the growth of the internet and the mobile revolution, which is now as enmeshed in our lives as the wheel.

However, with restrictions around patented and proprietary processors, the future of OSHW will be driven by the opportunistic semiconductor companies. The level of openness matters. OSHW will also be driven by the intensely creative and nascent Maker community, by the foresighted in academia, and by the altruism found in human nature. Look for more medical-related projects as professionals without borders look to solve problems, such as a low-cost, open source ECG,i and low-cost infusion pumps.

OSHW is also shifted by the market trends that drive processors, and by low cost. Low-cost translates to accessibility, since hardware cannot be shared as freely as code. But OSHW goes where the usual business models do not go, enabling what we have not seen before, which includes areas ripe for altruism, such as in Medical and Education. Further commercial uses will be introduced by the Maker Community in such far-flung areas as fashion and the arts, as DIY electronics gets an infusion of creativity, the likes that Heath kits never saw. Residually, we will see entrepreneurs use OSHW and later share their improvements after taking profit.

Semiconductor manufacturers are showing interest in providing processors tuned to wearable technology in areas as diverse as fitness and fashion. A fad can spark huge sales, or a seemingly simple convenience can morph into something one cannot live without. Example: Phones with cameras….who would need them? But they evolved from a simple tool as mobile bar-code readers, to vital social reporting tools; capturing news footage of international atrocities. Smart phones are face-recognition tools, identification and retrieval systems (where did I park on the street this time?), triage management tools in a disaster, videoconferencing stations, and instantly capture meeting notes from a white-board.

To get an idea of just how far this is going now that the Arduino is used to make a 3D printer called RepRap (www.reprap.org). There are some incredibly creative projects and open source files for 3D objects to create with 3D printers. Someday your flat pack furniture will ship with no screws, just a link (to the files to 3D print the screws.)

OSHW, as an open source model, is a framework on which to share ideas, and therefore a crucible to mix ideas from many diverse streams of information coming from businesses, individuals, artists, and both users and contributors from multiple professions and experiences…..all applied to electronics hardware. OSH W provides an approachability-factor that enables the confidence of non-engineers (and not just students) to dabble and create. This is new; a kind of electronics democracy. Successful OSH W projects retain the culture of academia where much was fostered, for the express purpose of inviting accessibility for learning embedded hardware.

Intel has recently released the Galileo, with a processor suited to wearable electronics, with small, low cost and memory rich processors. Look for OSHW developments here, including more projects related to pervasive computing, also referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT can include anything that communicates over the internet to provide more efficiency and convenience in everyday life, such as cloud-printers. One project uses the Raspberry Pi in conjunction with the Google cloud platform. Cloud printing allows you to print from any application on a connected mobile device without setting up specific print drivers. So you can cloud-print from a smartphone or tablet to a connected printer with a drag-and-drop gesture. Android 4.4 Kit Kat will include Google cloud print as a print service pre-installed. ii

So what is the future for open source hardware? It may seem obvious, but the future brings more open source projects that further enable current technology. Look for more medical-related projects in OSHW as professionals look to solve problems, such as the comparatively low-cost, open source ECGs and infusion pumps for poverty-stricken areas. Look for more in 3D printing and open files for 3D objects to create at home. Someday clothing will have a link on the label for 3D-printing replacement buttons. While at the grocery store, you will be able to tell Google glasses to print your son’s lost math assignment to the cloud printer in the house. You will pay online for the plans and files to print the next Lego Star Wars set. OSHW and IoT will integrate seamlessly into our lives. If, in 1970, someone had predicted that we would someday have library books that returned themselves, the thought would have seemed magical, if not physically impossible. However, digital books on eReaders do this all the time now. We may not have flying cars yet, but cars that can safely drive themselves are already here. Adding the flying part is within reach (although scary without infrastructure to regulate it.)

Open source has been a large part of the advancement of technology. Open source hardware can go anywhere, and so can you. You can start by looking at open source hardware kits by Arduino, Launchpad, Beaglebone, and more at mouser.com.

i ECG from concept to certification: http://www.gammacardiosoft.it/openecg. Also look at:
ii http://developer.android.com/about/versions/kitkat.html

Lynnette Reese is a member of the technical staff at Mouser and holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Louisiana State University. Prior to Mouser, she completed a combined 15 years in technical marketing in embedded hardware and software with Texas Instruments, Freescale, and Cypress Semiconductor. She started her career as an applications engineer at Johnson Controls.

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