Economist reports on Open Hardware

Phil Torrone of Make: posted recently on an article in The Economist on open source hardware.

Its a good intro to the area with some interesting quotes from some key protagonists, and focussing often on the examples of Chumby and OpenMoko.

The article immediately gets of to a slightly rocky start with this statement:

“Some day, perhaps, fabricating machines will be able to transform digital specifications (software) into physical objects (hardware), which will no doubt lead to a vibrant trade in specifications, some of which will be paid for, and some of which will be open-source.”

Any readers of this blog will know that digital fabricators are not a case of ‘some day’ and also that paid for ”specifications’ can also be open-source (see Free as in Beer).
The article goes on to briefly tackle the marketing benefits of collaborative development:

“Companies, for their part, say an open approach can help them get to market quickly with products that give customers what they want—without the need for market research. Such advantages, they say, outweigh the drawbacks of exposing what are usually seen as corporate secrets.”

and the business case for open source:

“The users have a built-in business model — they build to satisfy themselves … The business model is ‘I can get stuff for myself, I can get a better design and I can benefit.’ The innovation is paid for within the activity itself.”

Free Beer

Image by pt

The author also makes a good point about the significant differences between open software and open hardware in terms of the ease with which source can be shared:

“… makers of open-source hardware generally reveal the physical information needed to build a device, including schematics, materials and dimensions. This is not something manufacturers normally do, and takes time and effort. Supplying open-source hardware is necessarily, therefore, more time-consuming and complex. “

Hence why it is proving easiest in the world of open source design to share designs that can be made by single already-digital processes, such as printing on card, laser cutting acrylic or rapid prototyping.

The article finishes by discussing the need to consider the benefits for consumers who are not developers, an area which Ponoko is well tailored to:

Even those who do not tinker can benefit from the work of those who do, just as ordinary consumers can still use Firefox without having to know anything about programming.

Food for thought, all of it, and yet more evidence of the increasing buzz around open source hardware/design.

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