Open Source's Final Frontier

David Schneider | | October 2, 2012

This past Thursday, I attended the third annual Open Hardware Summit, organized by the Open Source Hardware Association and held at the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in Manhattan. While open software is now very much mainstream, open hardware is in a far more primitive state. So hearing from the folks at ground zero of this newfangled way of developing and marketing products was illuminating.

Before recounting some of the highlights of this conference, I should take a moment to try to outline what open-source hardware is. The basic concept is simple enough: It’s hardware for which the design documents—schematic diagrams, board layouts, CAD files, whatever—are all made available to anyone under some sort of open license. As with open software, different types of licenses grant varying degrees of freedom (although a lot of freedom appears to be the norm here). This approach stands in stark contrast to the usual way of doing business, where a company encircles its intellectual property wagons and keeps competitors at bay with a variety of weapons: copyrights, patents, or simply by maintaining trade secrets.