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Linux-Lego man trumpets OSH revolution

Open source hardware 'ten years away'

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Open-source plastic

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." ®

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