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Open Source: Applying the Success of Open Source to Hardware

By Dick Weisinger

The success of Open Source Software is now beginning to influence how people approach hardware too.  Get ready for an equivalent revolution on the hardware side.

Open Source hardware (OSHW) follows the same philosophy and licensing of technical information for how to build hardware.  OSHW covers the licensing of mechanical drawings, schematics, PCB layouts, HDL source code, data for integrated cirguit layout, and any other technical data or information needed to build and construct hardware.

Examples of companies already building hardware projects and products on open source specifications include SparkFun ElectronicsAdafruit IndustriesWillow GarageROSOpenWetWare, and Pearl Biotech.

Even large established hardware vendors are at least partially on board.  Vlad Rozanovich, AMD vice president of commercial business for the Americas, said that ”If there can be community development that is not proprietary, it can benefit everybody.”

Similarly, Trevor Good, co-chair of the Hardware Innovation Workshop, told Informationweek, that Open Source Hardware is all ”about enabling companies to move faster and be more pliable than ever.”  It’s not a business plan or a business strategy, but a tool to drive business.

Companies like Ford Motors are promoting the OSHW concept.  Ford encourages their employees to dabble in Open Source hardware projects, like the OpenXC platform which is used for building phone applications that can interact with hardware embedded in Ford vehicles.

Another high-profile Open Source Hardware (OSHW) project is the Open Compute project that was backed by Facebook.  The Open Compute project involves a redesign of the 19-inch wide hardware rack that has become ubiquitous in data centers.  Frank Frankovsky, VP of Hardware Design and Supply Chain for Facebook, said that “Racks may not sound so sexy, but they’re a critical component in all data centers.  We are ditching the 19-inch rack standard. We’ve forced ourselves into this 19-inch width, and we end up with what I call ‘racks gone bad.’”

Amir Michael, Manager System Engineering at Facebook, said about applying Open Source strategies to hardware projects that “It’s natural in an environment where companies are trying to remain profitable to keep some pieces of innovation to themselves. But they also need to be able to share and engage with the community.”

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