Open-source hardware takes steps toward gadget mainstream

The success of open-source software raises a tantalizing question: Could the same design philosophy work for tech gadgets?

Open-source software is one of the great success stories of the past few decades. The Apache HTTP Server is the world's most popular Web server, Linux, has more than held its own against Unix and other proprietary operating systems, and Mozilla's Firefox browser has given Microsoft's Internet Explorer strong competition over the years.

Could the same philosophy -- the free and public dissemination of underlying code and specs, with multiple developers from disparate sources contributing to the design -- work for tech gadgets as well? Will we one day commonly use smartphones, netbooks or other gadgets that have been developed under an open-source model, maybe even preferring them over proprietary products like the iPhone?

After all, it's possible today to design a device -- including its electrical and mechanical architecture -- on a personal computer with CAD and schematic design software, order nearly all the components needed for it online, and then process the manufacturing of a prototype through a low-cost supplier. So the idea of organizing an open-source project online to build a device isn't far-fetched, nor is it one that requires millions in start-up funding.

But can such gadgets succeed against those developed by established commercial manufacturers with deep pockets? Mark Driver, a Gartner analyst who specializes in open source, thinks that open-source gadgets have the best chance in markets where the technology has matured to the point that it is commonplace.

"Open source is about commoditization," Driver says. "These products are taking a market where there really isn't a lot of concrete differentiation ... between what's out there and providing an alternative, which is exactly what open source does right. Linux got wildly popular not because it did something new; it's because it did what Unix did, but did it in a much more open fashion."

Defining open-source hardware

While there are numerous open-source computer and electronics components available today, only a handful of complete tech gadgets are being developed under an open-source philosophy. However, what exactly defines a hardware project as being open source remains ... well, open.

Generally, hardware that is "open sourced" means at least some of its plans have been made available to the public, thus allowing others to contribute to its development or, if permitted by its creator, to manufacture the device themselves or even modify the plans to create a new device.

Always Innovating Inc., for example, encourages outsiders to contribute to the development of its ARM-processor-based tablet/netbook hybrid, the Touch Book. Weighing 1.8 lbs., the device features a touch screen, a removable keyboard and a customized Linux operating system distribution. It can run for 10 hours on a single battery charge.

The schematics for the Touch Book are freely available on Always Innovating's Web site. "We also provide advanced support and consulting services for companies who want to build their own devices starting from our design," says Chief Operating Officer Alexandre Tisserant.

"This is the way we are following: Build reliable, innovative products, and by opening them, you will get the necessary feedback and contributions to improve them and design new ones faster and easier," Tisserant says.

That's the open-source ideal, anyway. On the flipside, "the worst-case scenario would be a project emerging using an open-source moniker, and it ends up being nothing more than a marketing gimmick," says Gartner's Driver. "If it's only from one vendor, or one source of support, those kind of things are the weakest forms of open source."

Who's in the market for open-source gadgets?

Unsurprisingly, the kind of user such gadgets are geared toward -- and appeal to -- the most is the tech hobbyist. The Touch Book has so far sold mainly to this crowd, says Tisserant, who says "several thousand" units have been sold. Yet his company is looking now to sell it to vertical markets. Because the Touch Book is highly customizable, it could easily be integrated into taxis or police cars, or connected to a hospital's private network as an "always on" portable device for medical staff, Tisserant says.

Then there's the Frankencamera, a Linux-based digital camera that can be programmed to control exposure, flash, focus settings and more. The camera is being developed by a team of graduate students at Stanford University and is meant for academic use.

"Specifically, we want to make this easy for graduate students doing research that could use a programmable camera, or undergraduate CS students doing courses in programming," says Andrew Adams, one of the lead developers of the Frankencamera. "We're graduate students ourselves, and this whole project is born out of our frustration with trying to program cameras to do what you want them to."

A consumer-oriented open-source project that has so far failed to catch on is the Neo FreeRunner smartphone and its supporting Linux-based platform, called Openmoko. The project was launched by Openmoko Inc., with both the operating system and the design plans for the internal electronics and housing available for others to use and improve on.

The company officially stopped supporting the project in April 2009, according to Product Manager William Lai. "As time and technology progressed, the funds involved in competing with the likes of Apple, RIM, Android, etc. were out of our scope, and we soon realized that the technology outpaced our ability to deliver on a timely basis," he says.

However, the Openmoko platform and FreeRunner phone are still being developed by a volunteer community.

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Howard Wen

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