Open-sourcing hardware

Is your tech business best served by protecting your intellectual property rights (IPR)? In fact, sharing your IPRs can improve innovation and even be good for business.

We usually link the term “open-source” to software, such as Linux or OpenOffice. But an Italian team of engineers have proved that the concept of open-source can also be applied to hardware. In 2005, the university teacher Massimo Banzi and his fellow researchers designed and developed a micro controller, which they named “Arduino”. Their plan was to build a cheap micro controller that their engineering students could use for their projects. One of Banzi’s grad students was assigned with developing the programming language for Arduino. Though intended as a low-scale projects for their students, the team suddenly realized that their device was so simple to use, that just about anyone could make electronic devices with.

What is special for Arduino, though, is that the project was open-sourced from the beginning. The team published all the schematics and plans for the micro controller on the internet, and gave anyone permission to produce and even sell Arduino boards. The only thing they reserved, was the company name “Arduino”, in order to separate originals from potentially cheap knock-offs. The word spread quickly, and Arduino became a popular device for hobbyists, building everything from home-made drones to Twitter-connected plants.

Creating a community
As Banzi said himself in an interview with Wired, you’d think that open-sourcing hardware is basically inviting competition. That’s true. But even though others may reproduce, sell and profit from producing Arduino boards in low-cost countries like China, the Arduino team still run a pretty good business. They have managed to create a community around their micro controllers. And as the inventor of the device that drives this community, you will become the point of gravity. Though the hardware itself might be produced better and cheaper by others, you still possess knowledge, expertise and credibility which provide unique business opportunities.

Still, open-source hardware is far from being the norm of technology businesses. David Mellis, who developed the Arduino programming language has argued that open-source hardware is a moral imperative, given the enormous role technology play in our lives. Producers of technological devices cannot prevent people from cracking open their smart phones and televisions in order to modify improve them, so isn’t open-source hardware simply inevitable? Is it possible to develop sustainable business models for open-source hardware? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

For more information about Arduino, check out Wired’s excellent piece on Arduino, or watch Massimo Banzi’s TED Talk: