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Wanted: Business model for open-source hardware

Posted: 26 Apr 2013 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Raspberry Pi? BeagleBoard? open-source hardware? business model?

The idea of open-source hardware will catch the attention of engineers. A growing number of open-source hardware board designs, such as the Raspberry Pi and BeagleBoard, that enable the reuse of board designs in commercial projects as well as for hobbyists to make their own projects. In fact, many engineers are working on enabling these movements further through collaborative work online with the help of online communities.

What is less clear is whether such movements will scale into the commercial world. There is a lack of clear business model and dependence, in some cases, on the donation of engineers' time by commercial organizations. That was one of the conclusions from a panel discussion moderated by EE Times editor-in-chief Alex Wolfe.

Over its short life the Raspberry Pi low-cost single-board computer, based on an ARM11-based system-chip from Broadcom Corp., has been a phenomenal success in terms of shipments. But what remains unclear is how widely the board is fulfilling its original brief of teaching young people how to program or is being adopted as a building block in commercial embedded equipment designs.

Gert Van Loo, senior principal engineer with Broadcom in Cambridge, England, and architect of the prototype of the Raspberry Pi computer board, said that commercial uptake has been gated by considerations of whether the Raspberry Pi Foundation can guarantee to be able to supply boards in five or ten years time. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is doing its best to make those assurances, he said.

Another road-block is the case that writing the license terms for open-source hardware is complex compared with open-source software, the panelists offered. Jason Kridner, software architecture manager with Texas Instruments and co-founder of, commented: "It is cheap to replicate bits but it is expensive to replicate atoms."

Chris Taylor, engineering project manager with SparkFun Electronics, said that there are issues that make convergence on a unified open-source license for hardware much harder than it has been for the open-source software movement. SparkFun is an online vendor of components for the "maker" community. "The Open-Source Hardware Association is still trying to figure out how that [license terms] will play. A hardware license is nebulous but there is work with Creative Commons [organization]," Taylor said. One camp thinks a universal license can be created; another camp doesn't, he added.

Taylor made his position clear when he said the creation of a single licensing environment for OSH is neither likely nor necessary and that many types of license would be tried. "OSH is built on that chaos. No one is ever going to agree on one license," he said.

Design West panel

From left to right: Alex Wolfe, editor-in-chief of EE Times, moderates panelists Jason Kridner, software architecture manager at Texas Instruments; Chris Taylor, engineering project manager at SparkFun Electronics; Pierre Michael, co-founder of Party Robotics; and Gert Van Loo, senior principal engineer with Broadcom

Working collaboratively, sharing designs
The fundamental driver is that makers and engineers do not want to re-invent the wheel and are often happy to share designs, design tips, shortcuts in online forums so that those that follow them can make more complex things more easily, Taylor said.

The drinks-dispensing robot company Party Robotics is based on the use of Arduino and then Raspberry Pi boards. The company has been funded by the founders and Kickstarter and has an open-source ethos. Panelist and co-founder of Party Robotics, said: "Not having to create hardware was a huge benefit. That is why we fold our designs back [in the open-source community] to allow even cooler things."

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