One of the many issues facing us as both companies and individual engineers is how and when to use open source hardware and software.
While the subject of open source used to be confined much more to software than to electronics and hardware, several changes over the past years have made it more universal. The advent of the 3D printer and other open source hardware projects along with Kickstarter as a vehicle for funding have made it much easier to bring a project to the open market than ever before.
Open source software/hardware learning and development projects like Arduino, BeagleBone, and Raspberry Pi have opened up resources for the masses that were previously cost prohibitive. An older version of this was seen in robotics in schools, but the vehicle to commercialize or rapidly spread the information was not always understood. I feel this is good news for the world of engineering. It helps evangelize the engineering and invention mindset and emphasize a long-term career path in a field that is challenging and often reinventing itself.
One of the issues in the software world that held back the open source movement for some time was the lack of support for not only the software itself but also the build libraries and applications. Many of these problems were solved with the Linux movement many years ago and SourceForge, which enables developers to create and store source and various builds in a readily available location under a more uniform licensing agreement. Another issue is how do we make money from open-source software code? The answer is not always clear, nor in many cases is it actually sought after.
The Red Pitaya open source instrumentation system.
Many open-source projects are there to help solve a problem that may in turn make it easier to perform our jobs on a daily basis. The ability to add to and improve existing code that may be of limited commercial use is the reason many of us turn to open source. It makes little sense to pour unlimited resources into code that is not core to your business or of significant commercial value. We are presently looking at several projects we want to open up to a larger development world for just this reason.
Companies like Redhat with Linux, and Google with Android have made good business models by opening up their software, but it takes vision and time. Meanwhile Apple, Microsoft, and Oracle make effective use of the proprietary model. These companies have and will continue to generate trillions for the economy and enrich the lives of their employees. There should always be a place for both types of business models as having value to our society.
On the hardware side, while I believe that Kickstarter is more of a funding vehicle than a central repository of projects, many of the projects do release full schematics, drawings, and code as part of participation. In this way it acts as a limited resource for this information. Many of these projects have no limitation on how you use the information, and encourage you to spread the word.
The use of FPGA and HDL is one of the most prevalent examples of hardware which takes advantage of an open-source hardware model. While it seems there are a number of sites attempting to be the equivalent to SourceForge, they have not gotten the traction and de-facto support from the hardware community. There are also still a number of competing licensing schemes to try and deal with patent issues.
As a company, Evans Analytical Group will continue to use open source projects to both accelerate our own knowledge and help us solve problems. We find it beneficial to enhance our internal solutions with the help of the vast amount of resources just a keyboard away. It is unlikely we as a company would open up any of our non-software-related projects.
At this time it doesn’t appear there is a universally accepted license agreement to keep someone else from patenting or claiming your IP and preventing you from using your own creation. On an individual basis I continue to support a number of projects like Red Pitaya and Parallela, which originate out of Kickstarter. While these are mainly hobbies, they do lead to an increase in knowledge and possibilities that can benefit both company and individuals.