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?

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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.


The Frankencamera digital camera

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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."

Neo FreeRunner smartphone

The Neo FreeRunner smartphone

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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.

Distributing and testing hardware is difficult

With software, anyone can download a copy of an open-source program and try it out practically instantly. It's equally easy to give feedback to its developers and contribute code to fix bugs or add features.

The open-source model in software development thrives on this constant distribute-and-test process: The more copies of the code you can get into the hands of other people, and the quicker you do so, the faster the project's developers can field feedback in order to fix and improve the software for its next release.

But applying the open-source model to hardware isn't as straightforward. Copies of prototypes can be expensive to produce and distribute to fellow developers for evaluating and testing, so development doesn't progress as quickly.

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