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How Open is VIA’s OpenBook Design?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
7th June 2008

A buzz-creating article appeared in Wired which announced that VIA, one of Taiwan’s leading chip and computer makers, is posting the computer-aided design (CAD) files for its OpenBook PC under a Creative Commons license.

Wired writes that:

For industrial designer Scott Summit, VIA’s move is part of a gradual shift toward more highly-customized manufacturing, in which small companies and even individuals are able to design and build their own products, thanks to the decreasing costs of fabrication.

“The idea of open source manufacture is taking shape, and we’re going to see more of it because the barriers (to highly customized production) are really starting to evaporate,” says Summit.

The design is aimed at smaller design-manufacturers and upstart PC companies rather than big PC manufacturers like HP or Dell, who create their own designs (like HP’s new MiniNote) from scratch.”

But how significant is is really? The OStatic blog has a useful commentary to put it into context:

like most chip manufacturers, they make available “reference designs” showing how to assemble their bits into a full computer (or, in this case, ultraportable computer). If you take a look at the new VIA OpenBook site, what you’ll find is that the open part is the CAD files for the plastic case around the machine. Anyone who wants to get together with VIA to make an ultraportable can register, download those designs, and modify them under a Creative Commons license.

While this is certainly more flexibility than many reference designs offer, it’s not open in the same sense as the OpenMoko phone or the Open Graphics Project, both of which we’ve covered here in the past. Unlike those projects, which aim to publish the full details of an entire hardware and software stack, the OpenNote simply makes one piece open while holding the rest under wraps. VIA is not, for example, offering to share their microcode.”

It is therefore important to have an understanding of degrees of openness, an insight which is provided us by Patrick McNamara of the Open Hardware Foundation.

I believe hardware can be loosely placed into four categories of openness. They are, in order of least to most open: Closed, Open Interface, Open Design, and Open Implementation.

Closed: Closed Hardware is any hardware for which the creator of the hardware will not release information on how to make normal use of the hardware, in such a way that that information may be freely shared with others. A sure sign of closed hardware is requiring the signing of an NDA to receive documentation on how to make use of a device.

“Whether or not a hardware device’s internal design is free, it is absolutely vital for its interface specifications to be free. We can’t write free software to run the hardware without knowing how to operate it. (Selling a piece of hardware, and refusing to tell the customer how to use it, strikes me as unconscionable.) But that is another issue.” Richard M Stallman

Open Interface: In the case of Open Interface hardware, all the documentation on how to make a piece of hardware perform the function for which it is designed is available. In the case of computer hardware, this means that all the information necessary to produce fully functional drivers is available. This is the minimum level of openness that makes hardware useful to the open software community. Surprisingly, large amounts of integrated circuits fall into this category. Any device for which you can get a complete data sheet from the manufacturer, with no limitations on sharing the data contained within, meets the Open Interface definition.

Open Design: Open Design hardware is hardware in which enough detailed documentation is provided that a functionally compatible device could be created by a third party. It is not at all uncommon for the programmer’s guides for a microcontroller to have complete instruction encoding formats, memory maps, block diagrams of the processor core, and other technical details that would make it possible to reproduce a compatible microcontroller. Open Design hardware allows you to see what was implemented and what it should do, but still keeps the finer details of how it was implemented closed.

Open Implementation: Hardware for which the complete bill of materials necessary to construct the device is available fall into the category of Open Implementation. In the realm of computer chips, this means the hardware definition language description of the device is available. For a circuit board, this would include the schematic. Everything needed to reproduce an exact copy of a device is available. This is the hardware parallel to the concept of open source software. The debate between ‘open’ and ‘free’ (libre) that exists in the software space exists for hardware as well. In this regard, the only hardware that can truly be claimed to be free, in the same manner that the Free Software Foundation defines free, is that which falls into the Open Implementation category. Unfortunately, unlike software, an idea and the desire to produce a hardware device that is free and open is not sufficient. Certainly in the semiconductor space, the ability to do so is beyond the individual and in most cases, beyond even a reasonably equipped development group.”

Graham Seaman has also done some useful definitional work:

Many of the arguments over free hardware design consist of people from software and hardware backgrounds talking at cross-purposes. One cause of this is the simple fact that the word `software’ refers both to source code and executables, while the words `hardware’ and `hardware design’ clearly refer to two different things. Using the word `hardware’ as short-hand for both design and physical object is a recipe for confusion. The following terms have all been used in discussions of this topic.

Free hardware design refers to a design which can be freely copied, distributed, modified, and manufactured. It does not imply that the design cannot also be sold, or that any hardware implementation of the design will be free of cost. All the same arguments about the meaning of ‘freedom’ between supporters of the Free Software Foundation, and the supporters of BSD_style licensing for software unfortunately carry over to hardware designs.

Libre hardware design refers to the same class of design as free hardware design, but tries to make it clear that the word free refers to freedom, not price. The term sounds very clumsy to many English ears, but is of course natural for French speakers (and translations of it are natural to speakers of most languages, which do not use one word in both free beer and free speech).

Open source hardware refers to hardware for which all the design information is made available to the general public. Open source hardware may be based on a free hardware design, or the design on which it is based may be restricted in some way.

Open Hardware is a trademark of the Open Hardware Specification Program. It is a limited form of open source hardware, for which the requirement is that:

Sufficient documentation on the device must be available for a competent systems programmer to write a device driver. The documentation must cover all of the features of the device-driver interface that any user would be expected to employ. This includes input/output and control functions and auxiliary functions such as performance measurement or self-test diagnostics. Details of on-board firmware and the hardware implementation need not be disclosed except when necessary to make it possible to program a driver for the device.

That is, only a limited amount of information about the design need be available; possibly not enough, for example, to attempt a repair.

Free hardware is a term occasionally used as a synonym for open source hardware. It is a tempting term, since ‘hardware’ appears to be directly parallel to ‘software’, but suffers from blurring the distinction between design and implementation. The term free hardware is particularly confusing since it implies that the physical hardware, rather than its’ design, is somehow free. This is not normally true in the cost sense, and is meaningless (except metaphorically) in a social sense. It seems simpler to avoid this term completely, except in it’s cost meaning, as with the free computers given away by various social organizations.”


One Response to “How Open is VIA’s OpenBook Design?”

  1. Patrick Anderson Says:

    Why are the WE unable to manufacture hardware while the THEY are already doing it?

    What is the difference?

    Unfortunately, unlike software, an idea and the desire to produce a hardware device that is free and open is not sufficient. Certainly in the semiconductor space, the ability to do so is beyond the individual and in most cases, beyond even a reasonably equipped development group.”

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