by Ashfaq Farooqui

Free and Open Source Software has gained a lot of momentum in the past couple of decades, with accelerating the growth of and development of technology. Though we enjoy the benefits of FOSS on a daily basis the complexity of writing drivers for hardware is increasing with every new piece of hardware coming into the market. Hardware and software have always gone hand in hand, but the last couple of years have seen a massive boom in the software market where major companies were concentrating only on complexity of their software. But of late proprietary companies are entering into legal partner ships with hardware companies to have hardware locks on their software, and also hardware manufactures trying to conceal products for their own benefits.

The four freedoms defined for Free Software can also be used on hardware.

Freedom 0: The freedom to use the product for any purpose.
Once we have bought the product it belongs to us and we have all right to use it for what ever we wish. There are no restrictions, but for the safety of the device we are supposed to use it in a defined manner.

Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the product works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
Lets say for example we have a bicycle, we have all right to modify it and make changes to it and i assume most of us have played around with bicycles to improve them for our own needs.

Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.

Freedom 3: The freedom to improve the product, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

The next two laws talk about sharing, though it cannot be done on physical hardware to a very large extent, we shall look into these two freedoms further in the article.

Prior to Integrated circuits most of the devices we had were mechanical and semi transparent, hence users with basic knowledge about the device could repair or replace broken parts and re-purpose. The bicycle is one example which most of us have seen evolve, hobbyists would modify to various designs to suite their needs.

However the has been a rapid change in technology as embedded systems have taken over most of our devices, From the hair dryer to automobiles embedded processors are everywhere. Though it is highly beneficial to have such systems running, they come with a drawback. The simplest drawback being ‘bugs’. No code is perfect, and at some point a bug will show up. The cost of recalling the products to repair them is a herculean task and may cripple the company, hence rarely resorted to. The biggest disadvantage is that no one other than the original manufacturer is capable of repairing it. Now if the source was easily available, it could be rectified by some person and given out to everyone, then installed by the owner if he could simply upgrade the firmware. Now this would benefit everyone. if users were allowed to write firmware, they rate of development would increase to a large extent as we have seen on the application development arena for android platform. Additionally, it would benefit the manufacturers as they could use the community fixes to install in their  subsequent manufacturing runs.

The Open Hardware criteria

Any device made with the intention of benefiting the open hardware community must follow certain rules:

  • All physical designs and schematics must be easily available under a license which allows modification and resale of the new device.
  • All software and firmware must be modifiable by the end user using FOSS tool-chains
  • The owner has the right to repair, modify and re-purpose with legal and social responsibility.

The device must also allow:

  • Updating of all firmware and software by the end-user
  • The user must be allowed to disassemble and reassemble the complete product.

The correlation between the freedoms and open hardware can be made here easily.

Future offerings in Open Hardware domain

Till now we have seen only dealt with what open hardware is. Now given all this how do we hope open hardware to change the world we live in? Now consider for example a cell phone, most of use use a cell phone. The hardware of the cellphone is designed by highly specialized engineers, but if the basic model is given as an open hardware phone, users would add different functionality to the phone according to their needs. For example, a chemical sensor, a heart monitor, and such devices. Now each device would require its own screen buttons, embedded processor, hence it is highly complex for a person trying to make a simple device, instead if given an open phone concept, the developer could use that as a base and create his own device with adequate effort. This type of system can be compared to a ladder where each user/developer ascends the ladder and allows the next person to use his support to go higher. Therefore everyone need not have to do that which is already done, he would need to concentrate on only making what is done better, allowing for a faster growing community.

The market relations in Open Hardware environment

With the arrival of open hardware component manufactures and device manufactures will be forced to change the way they do business. Component manufactures will be selling development kits at a fairly cheap price,  this is already happening with the Arduino boards growing in fame.

Device manufactures will have to decide between being ‘open’ or ‘closed’ this trend is already being seen in the market with all the ‘i’ products coming in with all types of patents and limitations on the end user. Community driven products will reduce expenditures to a large extent as any one can produce the same product, hence stopping monopoly-style-pricing. Since it would be community driven the products would be more of what the user wants and not all unwanted features which are added just to increase the price of the device.

Consumers will be at the benefiting end here, they will have the chance to choose from a wide variety of products and also help in making of these products either by suggesting ideas on mailing lists, supporting projects on kickstarter or by actually making them.

Open Hardware licenses

Though open hardware has been there for a long time there were not many licenses available and people would use the GNU/GPL license or the creative commons.
Due to the special needs of the current advents in the hardware industry a number of licenses have been made to name a few:

  • The TAPR Open Hardware License
  • Although originally a software license, OpenCores encourages the LGPL
  • The CERN Open Hardware License (OHL)

Live Open Hardware projects

The number of current official open hardware projects is increasing day by day, and no definite number can be given.

The most famous projects would be:

  • Arduino- an open source program development board working on ATMEGA controllers
  • Beagle board-a single-board computer based on low-power Texas Instruments processors, using the ARM Cortex-A8 core
  • The maker bot-A device used to print 3D hardware.

Arduino UNO ATMEGA development board

We are now on the brink of a transformation in how physical devices are created and who creates them. The ability to create modern electronic devices is spreading from the hands of large-budget R&D groups of specialized engineers to communities made up simply of the people who want to be involved; engineers, artists, and other creative types .  This transformation will ultimately produce the devices that people want and need, not what focus groups and corporations think is needed. And most importantly this change will transform us into a society of citizen-makers – a people with greater understanding of the things we make and that make us who we are.