Adam Outler · Mar 25, 2012 at 09:00 am

Open-Source Hardware–The Industry Standard

The center of most modern development is Open-Source.

Open-Source is a huge selling point, allowing the user to potentially be on equal or greater knowledge-footing than product support.  Open-Source allows the end user to read and write the same software that comes on the device.  Open-Source also gives us the tools we need to modify our devices.

Lets take a look back at the beginnings of Open-Source, back in the 70’s.  When Richard Stallman’s (Founder of GNU) printer jammed, it gave no warning.  The printer was a networked printer, and it took an hour to print.  When a user would print, they would check back in an hour only to find out the printer was jammed to start with.

But at that point, we were completely stymied, because the software that ran that printer was not free software. It had come with the printer, and it was just a binary. We couldn’t have the source code; Xerox wouldn’t let us have the source code. So, despite our skill as programmers–after all, we had written our own timesharing system–we were completely helpless to add this feature to the printer software.

Frustration up the whazzoo. But the thing that made it worse was knowing that we could have fixed it, but somebody else, for his own selfishness, was blocking us, obstructing us from improving the software. So, of course, we felt some resentment.

Richard Stallman eventually went on to form the GNU.  The GNU is a operating system and foundation which stands for Software Freedom.  They protect the software tools we use on a daily basis.  This set of tools along with Linus Torvalds’ Linux Kernel  is what forms what most people think of as ‘Linux’.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, when Stallman was working on printers, most electronics were easy to work with (by today’s standards).  Any technologist or technician could build or repair any piece of equipment because discrete components (transistors, resistors, capacitors, inductors) were prevalent.  Many opted to build their own computers on large breadboards.  Occasionally non-descrete components like the 555 timer were used, and these components had complete documentation available.

Through the years, many Open-Hardware standards evolved and left a legacy.  The VHS tape recorder, the RCA cable, the IBM-Compatible (now known as PC), The SD Card, etc.  Each of these standards has left a legacy of trust behind it.   Not a single bad thing can be said about these formats during their time because they were or are the standard.  This should be the goal of every hardware engineer.  These are not the “the best, well designed” hardware.  They were so much more.  They are  “industry standards” because the information was available to anyone who wanted it.

Recently a movement has been started known as Open-Source hardware.  Until now, we did not have a name for it other than “industry standard”.  From this movement amazing things have become realities, most notibly: Reprap, a 3D printer that can clone itself, and Arduino, a general purpose Micro-Controller that can interface with the real-world.

But the Open-Hardware movement is in it’s infancy.  The Reprap and Arduino are the faces put on it.  This movement will continue to expand to the point that manufacturers realize value in allowing their customers to design their hardware.

For now, manufacturers that are proud of their hardware provide shematics and datasheets—or at a bare minimum, a service manual.  They allow their customers to explore their designs and make improvements to them.  When a problem is encountered, a customer may use this information to make corrections (i.e. JTAG, UnBrickable Mod, Charging adapters, etc.) to the original equipment.

When a manufacturer fails to provide this information, it sends a clear message.

In order to keep costs down, we have made the decision; cut corners.  We are not proud of the engineering of our product and it is intended to be disposable.  We do not expect, nor do we appreciate contributions to our efforts.  Furthermore you, the consumer, should remember your place and continue giving us money while we continue ignoring you.

Unfortunately companies like Apple, HTC, Sony, and Motorola embrace this type of philosophy. This is not true of Samsung.  Which is most likely the reason Samsung devices are regarded as some of the best and the choice of Google for the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus.

There is a point being reached in the mobile industry.   Mobile devices are becoming so powerful that within 18 months they will begin replacing our desktop computers.  Hardware like the ASUS PadPhone and Motorola Atrix are at the forefront. Software like Motorola’s Webtop and Canonical’s Ubuntu for Android are driving the movement.

It’s obvious that the Open-Source Ubuntu for Android will win over the proprietary Motorola Webtop.  With the exception of the OMAP Processor, there is no fully open-source hardware providing the standards. Because of this, small manufacturers are able to spring up to greatness very quickly by announcing a new product for a cheap price.  There are no large companies forming the “Industry Standard” for a mobile desktop.

Mark my words…  There will be a race to provide the mobile desktop replacement, and Open-Hardware will be the key to success.


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Adam Outler

AdamOutler is an editor on XDA-Developers, the largest community for Android users. Electronics Tech/ Developer View AdamOutler's posts and articles here.
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