It's no coincidence that Semmelhack's Bug Labs is an OSH operation, offering Lego-like Linux-based hardware modules that let developers piece together their own gadget prototypes with relative ease. Semmelhack envisions a world in which such reference designs are commonplace. This would include everything from chips, motherboards, and firmware to plastic PC enclosures and other case creations.
"In a perfect world, you have hardware mashups," he told the gathered ETech heads. "And these should work just like software mashups, so you have pieces and parts with standardized interfaces. You snap things together, and they work. It works in the software world - why can't it work with hardware?"
An OSH revolution would cut development time in half, he says, and devices could be tested and deployed for half the costs. And that means developers could build a market around devices that couldn't even see the light of day in our world. None too surprisingly, Semmelhack speaks of an untapped hardware gadget "long tail."
"There are all these long-tail gadget markets that exist, but developers run smack into the problem of how you do it economically. Health care is a prime example of this long-tail problem. There are all these tiny little vertical healthcare markets...and there's a business to be had there, but we have to find a way to actualize it. And that's where open-source hardware has something to say."
Semmelhack tells us that within ten years, we'll see an OSH revolution that mirrors the recent rise of open-source software. And though he does acknowledge the obstacles, he sees no reason they can't be overcome.
Microsoft's recent TomTom suit underlines the ongoing patent threat to the open-source software world. And Semmelhack agrees that hardware patents pose an even greater threat. But in the end, he shrugs them off.
"If anything, hardware patents are a deeper thicket than software," Semmelhack said. "It will be an issue. But I don't think it will be a terminal issue. The truth of the matter is that if you do anything moderately successful, you'll be sued."
And licenses aren't a problem either - even though there's no equivalent to source code in the hardware world, even though an open-source hardware license would have to cover, well, almost anything. "Open software licenses can be applied to hardware. You just have to be very specific about what they apply to, and though they're tricky, there's already a movement towards open-source hardware licenses."
In the end, Semmelhack says, businesses will embrace OSH because it's a money-saver - something that's particularly important amidst a shrinking economy.
"We're already seeing a lot of interest in what we're espousing because people want to continue to innovate. They know they can't stop innovating. It's like a bank knowing they can't stop lending. That's the business they're in. How do you have a bank if you can't lend money? How do you have a company if you can't sell a product? But you have to find a way to do it cost-effectively." ®
Linux-Lego man trumpets OSH revolution
Re: Is it really open?
I'm not sure about this open source hardware stuff but no doubt the people who are interested will do better than the mobile telephone makers who spent years trying to get a standard one charger fits all interface, I believe that they have tentatively agreed to implement something within the next few years.
As to the comment.
>Hardware development is very difficult to do at home. You need a whole host of speciliased software packages for design and simulation. Then there is an appreciable cost to making prototypes.
This used to be true. When I started making hardware projects the cheapest way was to make track layouts using etch resist transfers on a copper clad board then throw it in a tray of acid. A strain on the eyes and very laborious. Today, this is almost unheard of as the transfers are all but impossible to find (Mega-UK still do them) even from major electronic components suppliers. However, the advances made are huge, it's easily within reach of anybody to design a PCB using a multitude of free software, I currently use Eagle, then develop it with a UV light box, you still need the acid tray. Also, it's already been mentioned that you can get small quanitity PCBs professionally made for a very low price. Add to this that a single, under one pound, pic microcontroller can do what what before would have taken tens to hundreds of logic chips, counters and discrete components.
Schematics for PIC programmers are available free but the price of a ready built one by microchip and a debugger hardly makes the diy route worth the effort and their free IDE is more than adequate. So no need for "speciliased software packages for design and simulation".
I've not had experience of the ATmega range but no doubt they're just as capable and easy to use as the PIC microntrollers.
As such, hardware devleopment is easily within reach of the individual. The most expensive part of most DIY projects these days is the case. Personally I don't bother with the packaging until the rest of the stuff is working.
There is plenty open source hardware out there. Look at opencores etc. The hard bit is putting all this stuff together and testing.
Software is relatively easy to make into shareable components because the intereaction between software components is relatively easy to manage.
Hardware is a lot harder to mash up. Add a GPS or WiFi module to a circuit and suddenly you have all sorts of interesting RF interference etc that need other parts of the circuit to be redesigned.
But of course it is far easier to ignore reality and just spout a whole lot of buzzwords at some conference....
Depends what you mean by "Open source hardware"
Unless you're going to fabricate your own chips, what's the difference between OSH and a marketed chip with a published specification?
"I need a chip to link two bits of kit. Shall I buy the 89 cent chip from Maplin or make my own in my multi-million pound fabrication plant?"
There's lots of OSH out there - I needed a brass bolt 4mm by 20mm and Homebase had loads.
I'm amused by the way that the example hardware engineer of the future speaks pretty much like Jeremy from Peep Show.
If anything, that's the major problem with a lot of Open Source advocacy at the moment - that it switches interchangeably between the 'good for companies as lowers costs' argument to appeal to The Man, and counter-culture ideologies to appeal to The Kids.
(And indeed, the presumption of every counter-culture has been that it represents a permanent change).
Incidentally, I'd disagree with the assertion that commercial companies are generally less likely to contribute to Open Source projects - I'd wager that the majority of work on significant open source projects (i.e. Linux, Firefox, Apache, WebKit) is being done by commercial developers rather than volunteers.
Of course there are lots of projects out there which don't get any commercial funding at all - probably the majority of projects and majority of open source developers are run by volunteers.
Sorry, SoC design started in earnest 10 years ago. The standards for on chip communication are already there. It is a drag and drop approach to new chip design. There is nothing new here.
What he is basically advocating is lots of dev boards that you put together to make a product. Guess what, your competitor will put it all in a board or chip and half the production costs. Who wins?