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The differences between open source software and open source hardware: extra management challenges

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
3rd March 2013

Excerpted from Simone Cicero:

“The main problem now with open hardware, is that to have something to what GIT and GitHub were for software is much more complicated.

The main difference lies not so much in the management of files – many open hardware projects already manage all documentation via GitHub today – but in the realization of real-world projects that generate a tangible impact on productive activities.

While with software you just click a button and start the “build” process that will produce the software to put into production, the process of “building” objects, open hardware artifacts – such as an electronic board or even a chair – is relevantly more complex and requires a substantial set of support tools, such as installation guides or the trivial details within a Bill of Materials (which in the world of software we can just settle thanks to a #include at the beginning of a file)

So far the documentation necessary to replicate open hardware projects is much bigger – the challenge to replicate a real artifact – than that which normally accompanies an open source software and tools that want to play a similar role had by GitHub, for hardware, will certainly be something more structured and complex.


Another fundamental not negligible difference and is related to interfaces. Despite drawing common interfaces in the digital world is simpler than in the analog world, this does not mean that interface design and standardization didn’t play a key role in the world of computer software.

For example, today’s Internet is interoperated around a fairly limited number of standard APIs such as the generation of JSON and XML and, more in general, by means of best practices and paradigms such as RESTtful.

In addition, this type of interfaces have helped the open source software to penetrate gradually into the contexts in which proprietary software was still the master, often substituting it day after day.

Several attempts are underway to replicate this type of approach in the hardware world: we have recently spotted Open Structures OSGrid on this blog, and a less ambitious but interesting example can also be found in MakerBeam, a project funded on kickstarter and then ended up for sale at SparkFun, which is also operating as a basis for the creation of more complex projects, such as the polar plotter.

Therefore, to consider interfaces key and operating for a more modular design that enables more re-use, emerge as major challenges with still not so clear solutions at today.

The real growth of the movement will also inevitably be linked to the capacity that the world of open hardware will have to come to the market with credible and, most importantly, available products. With software it took a website and a download button: hardware distribution is more complicated as it takes workshops and small factories, such as those in which you can build a tractor, a car or an engine.

In the real world distribution counts and means of production are not as easily accessible as on the web, despite examples of on demand production networks – fated to grow and distribute worldwide – such as those represented by Alibaba or Shapeways give a glimpse that something like this could happen soon.

Once this will be achieved, tangibly lower costs and the benefit coming from participatory and community driven innovation will be so clear to catch the attention of all the actors of the productive chain and the obvious advantages in not reinventing the wheel, but in making it, rather, open source, will get clear for everybody.”


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