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Now, open source hardware

T. Ramachandran

Draft version likely to be finalised at a September summit in New York


KOCHI: The concept of open source is now generally well understood in relation to software, but can it be extended in a clear-cut manner to hardware too?

Yes, say a group of open source hardware enthusiasts, who have been working on the draft version of a definition of open source hardware. They hope to finalise it at a summit, scheduled for September in New York.

Open source in the context of software implies not only the free availability of source code, but also the freedom to modify and redistribute it. The concept has widened and is being applied in other domains too.

Some open source hardware licences like the TAPR open hardware and non-commercial hardware licences were formulated and ideas from them are being incorporated into the draft.

Effective definition

Hardware enthusiasts and researchers apart, companies are embracing open source hardware these days. So the need for an effective definition of has become pressing.

Peter Semmelhack, whose Bug Labs is one of the sponsors of the summit devoted to the open source hardware movement, says the time has come to crystallise the concept of open source hardware.

There is a basic difference between open source software and open source hardware: the latter will never be totally free.

“The whole goal of open source is to reduce/eliminate the transaction costs of innovation in software and now, hardware. The big difference, of course, is hardware will never be free [as in free beer]. That doesn't mean, however, we can't drastically improve the process by which new hardware devices get to market,” Mr. Semmelhack says.

Anybody with a computer can download and install open source software; it is hard to replicate and use open source hardware as easily. The process of developing electronic hardware requires an approach, workflow and tools quite different from those required for creating software.

Richard Stallman, free software stalwart, wrote in Linux Today more than a decade ago, “Because copying hardware is so hard, the question of whether we're allowed to do it is not vitally important.”

Physical difference

But, Mr. Semmelhack went on to tell TheHindu, “There's an obvious physical difference between creating software vs. hardware — bits vs. atoms. But philosophically the approaches are identical. In the world of software applications, open source promises that when you get the application executable, you also receive the source code to modify that application. Open source hardware similarly promises that when you buy a device [the “executed” version of the design], you also receive all the source material for that device so you can modify it. In the case of hardware, it's not a single text source file but a collection of documents that, in total, equal everything you need.”

Implications

G. Nagarjuna, chairman, Free Software Foundation, India, says: “Free software movement and its method of granting freedom has implications for not merely software, but also other technologies, not even merely for computing devices. Therefore, when the hardware specs are known to the engineers, and they have the freedom to make changes, innovation will take several leaps.”

Some feel that India, which has a lot of catching up to do on the hardware front, should aggressively exploit the potential of this concept. “I would say that it is relevant for every country, including India. India will definitely get the advantage.”

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