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Open-source hardware takes baby steps toward the gadget mainstream

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

By Howard Wen
March 3, 2010 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - 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.

Touch Book
The Touch Book tablet/netbook hybrid
Click to view larger image.

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.



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