Linux-Lego man trumpets OSH revolution
Open source hardware 'ten years away'
ETech The brain behind Bug Labs' Lego-like Linux building blocks  says we're on the verge of open-source hardware revolution.
"[Open Source hardware] will happen. There's nothing stopping it," Bug Labs CEO and founder Peter Semmelhack told The Reg this morning after trumpeting the biz benefits of open-source hardware during a mini-speech at Silicon Valley's Emerging Technology Conference .
Well, nothing except entrenched patent law. And a complete lack of open-source licenses for hardware. And a world that can't even agree on what open-source hardware is.
But Semmelhack argues that OSH will significantly reduce the cost and time required to bring new gadgets to market, creating a whole new breed of hardware devices. And he's sure that although today's hardware makers guard their hardware IP like their own flesh and blood, the up-and-coming generation will see things differently.
"Today, it's a cultural thing. People are so worried about hardware patent rights and nailing [the IP] so no one can steal it," Semmelhack said. "But I think there's hope with the young people, the younger generation. If you talk to someone who's been at HP for thirty years, the idea of open-source hardware is heresy.
"But if you look at someone coming out of school, someone who has an idea for a new gadget and has seen what open-source software can do, they'll be a lot more willing to accept this notion of community-based hardware innovation. They'll say 'Yeah. Shit. I'll give back.'"
Even at mature hardware operations, Semmelhack argues, the roots of revolution are showing. He points to Texas Instrument's Beagle Board laptop motherboard as the prime example, saying there are good reasons for big names to set free their IP.
"When TI open-sourced the Beagle Board, they had no immediate commercial motivation," he told us. "It's a way of seeding the market, of getting people interested in what they're doing, in their processors. And because they've tipped their hat to open source, they've created enormous good will."
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." ®