Obstacles to open source hardware (1): The lack of open-source culture among component makers

Howard Wen has an article on the mainstreaming of open source gadgets, which amongst other interesting points, mentions open source thrives only in commoditized areas without much innovation. He also gives examples of open source gadgets.

In the article, he reviews some of the roadblocks. Here’s what he has to says about non-open components:

Howard Wen:

“A device that is open source does not necessarily mean every component within its design schematic is also open source — in fact, it probably uses several proprietary parts.

Any consumer tech device is built with many smaller components. The makers of these parts are usually secretive about revealing their inner workings, unless it’s to a paying client. This can be a challenge for anyone trying to develop open-source hardware if their device’s design plans are to be released publicly.

“In the software world, there’s a rich culture of providing basic open-source building blocks like compilers, editors, support libraries and operating systems,” says Adams of the Frankencamera project. “Unfortunately, chip manufacturing is an inherently expensive business, and there’s far less room for the kind of altruistic sharing that seems to be the major motivator behind a lot of open-source contributors. Having to sign [non-disclosure agreements] to even see how to use a part like an image sensor is common.”

Although he and his fellow Frankencamera developers have encountered hesitation or refusals from companies they’ve approached to acquire information to help them build their digital camera, they have come across some willing to contribute — in particular because of the open-source aspect of their project. (Most of the Frankencamera’s electronics are commodity parts that anyone can buy. A few components, such as the camera’s power circuitry, were specially designed by the project’s team.)

“Companies that are hard to extract information or parts from don’t care whether you’re planning something open source or commercial — they’re equally reticent. People and companies that are willing to help are usually more willing to if it’s going to be open source; they know they’ll be able to benefit from any results too,” says Adams.”

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