How to create an ecosystem to grow open source hardware

A recent paper co-authored by Microsoft Research and the University of Wisconsin has given us food for thought, and fired us up to encourage more people to develop the open source hardware system.

Software has flourished due to open source innovations, but where is hardware? It’s behind, in 2013 software startups attracted fifteen times more investment than hardware startups. If you think about the big success stories of the last 15 years – they are mainly software-based. Facebook uses PHP, Twitter and Shopify are built on Ruby on the Rails and Uber uses Node.js. All open source software platforms.

Open source technologies allow startups to develop faster, shorten their time to market and reduce costs. Individuals have been able to experiment, learn and ultimately create successful businesses because costs are much lower in software. The advent of the inexpensive components, single board computers  and ready access to high-speed internet makes this easier and easier as each year goes by.

 Open source hardware (OSH) has a problem in that physicalequipment has longer lead times and design specification is less accessible and transferable. Where industry has been more forth coming in software, there are still deterrents in hardware as industry has been slower to respond to open source requests.

Industry virtually ignores OSH for use in commercial products, and contributes little front-end, back-end or EDA tools,due to lack of perceived value. The lack of industry recognition limits OSH participation for skill-development.

Open Source Hardware: Opportunities and Challenges, June 2016

The development community and hardware industry need to, as the paper states, ‘more vigorously’ collaborate in the open source ecosystem.

Encouraging participation from industry and academia

Interoperability is the first step to motivating contributes to OSH from both sides – making components work together easily will make the prospect of sharing more meaningful and simple.

 Agility is the key to the success of Open Source Software (OSS),so we must look to this success to build OSH. We have a growing maker movement globally, where people want to build what they use, and this must be encouraged. The GoPro is a mainstream success story in OSH,and if we can motivate more individuals to design chips then we’ll see many more projects like this.

Academia should structure courses to incorporate OSH, and this will attract those students interested in hardware projects as well as speeding up the non-industry side of the OSH ecosystem.

Without industry the OSH movement can’t reach critical mass,however. After some hesitation industry did contribute to OSS which we can see was obviously beneficial.

We argue that making commodity, commonly used IP freely available will ultimately benefit the hardware industry.Proven IP from vendors, possibly enhanced by the open source community, and eventually maintained collectively, can dramatically lower the bar for developers to start new designs

Open Source Hardware: Opportunities and Challenges, June 2016

If we can kick-start design this will generate more opportunities for industry in the future – much like the Linux ecosystem developed.

How to make hardware development practical

We should look at this section in terms of community and industry, each of which has their own important role.

Community: To make hardware prototyping more practical components must be accessible in an easier way. FPGAs should be more“ubiquitously available” through the cloud, mobile platforms or general purpose processors. In an academic setting they should be seen as research tools with a simplified set up and design process –users can easily base their designs to existing reference designs.

Industry: The electronic design automation (EDA) industry should make free versions of their designs available for non-commercial projects, to reduce costs for individuals and academia. This echoes the ‘freemium’ software model or preferential developer access to encourage innovation and experimentation, which will benefit industry eventually.

Five steps to developing the OSH ecosystem

The paper defines five steps required to develop the OSH ecosystem, briefly they are:

  1. Encourage individuals to contribute towards platforms and provide necessary design flows
  2. Make hardware design practical via easily available EDA tools and development platforms from industry
  3. More and more OSH components are developed, industry can leverage this critical mass
  4. OEMs introduce modular instrumentation that encourage customisation – for example open standards based designs
  5. Simplify agreements and licencing to grant the freedom to evolve to permit commercial and non-commercial use and contribution

This cycle will allow ideas to be generated and growth to be sustained in OSH, and gives academia/individuals and industry equal roles in it.

The paper gives us a lot of material to begin this journey, and now it falls to us in the industry to look around and see what we can contribute. For us, it is allowing devices to be interoperable so that these readily available components can be used together to encourage creativity.

Read the full paper or leave us a comment with your thoughts on this exciting time in industry and academia.

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