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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Making money (or not) from open-source hardware

Always Innovating's Tisserant acknowledges that hardware companies going the open-source route might have lower profit margins, but he says they can benefit from lower research-and-development costs and shorter development cycles. "The goal is not to keep your secrets and live on endless royalties, but to share the knowledge and grow upon fast innovation," he says.

WikiReader

The WikiReader pocket Wikipedia reader

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Although Openmoko Inc. no longer supports the FreeRunner phone and Openmoko smartphone platform, Lai says the company isn't through with open-source: "For the last year, Openmoko as a company has been focused on bringing open source in front of an audience of mass appeal. We want to continue to design products using open-source elements," such as the WikiReader ($99), a pocket reader preloaded with Wikipedia content, says Lai.

As far as the developers of the Frankencamera are concerned, they have no business plan because their project isn't meant to sell an end product. Their goal is to get the schematics of Frankencameras into the hands of students at other academic institutions, so they can build their own at minimal cost to use in their coursework and research.

In turn, they hope their project will "convince camera manufacturers that letting end users program their cameras is something that actually adds value and makes people want their product more, because there's a community of enthusiasts constantly adding new features to it," says Adams.

"How successful would the iPhone have been without the app store? Now why can't you write and download apps to your camera? Our personal goals are to do interesting research, and give other people the tools to do interesting research, not to make money," Adams says.

Selling open-source gadgets beyond the techie crowd

Jeff Orr, a technology analyst with ABI Research, thinks for an open-source hardware project to succeed in the marketplace against proprietary, commercial products, it still needs "some ownership — some individual, some entity — that is providing the workforce to assemble and distribute these products ... Once I've bought it, what's the support like? Is there a warranty if something goes wrong?"

Still, he is cautiously optimistic about the potential of open source at gadgets' R&D stage: "Could [the open-source model] challenge the commercial research and development process? I think so ... because you create a larger pool of knowledge that any individual or organization could learn from."

But will an open-source gadget ever take off in the same way Firefox and Ubuntu have, becoming a household name among mainstream gadget users? Open-source gadgets will become more common, Gartner's Driver predicts, but he is unsure if we will see one that appeals to a wide user base and can challenge an equivalent proprietary product.

"Will we see the same kind of revolution in those kind of devices that we saw in software? That's probably a much less likely occurrence to happen, at least for the foreseeable future," Driver says.

Howard Wen is a frequent contributor to Computerworld.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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