Is "open" hardware a disruptive technology that will foster the kind of collaboration that Linux brought to the software world?
Despite the recent demise of one prominent open-source programmable-logic effort, advocates think so. Given the increasingly prohibitive costs of developing hardware from scratch, open hardware is an attractive possibility. But the road is not easy, and new business models will be needed to support it.
At the Electronic Design Processes workshop last month, Juan-Antonio Carballo, partner in IBM's venture capital group, made an eloquent pitch for open hardware. "The open-source model is quickly extending from software to hardware, and it will provide a similar swell of collaborative innovation," he said.
The word "open" has various meanings, Carballo explained. It includes but is not limited to open source, where specifications or source code are freely available and can be modified by a community of users. It could also mean that the hardware details can be viewed, but not modified. And it does not necessarily mean that open hardware, or designs that contain it, are free of charge.
The open-hardware movement suffered a blow in late April when STMicroelectronics pulled the plug on its Generalized Open Source Programmable Logic initiative. That effort was launched last year in India, with the stated goal of becoming the "Linux of the semiconductor world." While never fully opened to the public, it was seeking "qualified contributors" who would have access to EDA source code and to hardware and software intellectual property (IP).
Still, there are other open-hardware efforts. One (www.power.org) represents a community of developers, tool providers and manufacturers who are developing standards and applications around IBM's Power Architecture. The Power.org mission statement calls for an "open-standard hardware development platform for the electronics industry," with open standards, specifications, guidelines and best practices.
An active community is developing around open-source IP cores. The www.opencores.org Web site lists a number of projects, including cores for arithmetic functions, DSP, communications protocols, memory and microprocessors. An OpenTech CD-ROM compiles several hundred open-source EDA software programs and hardware designs.
One pointed question is how to make money from open hardware. The answer may be similar to that in the Linux world: support and value-added services. At the Opencores site, OpenTech creator Jamil Khatib recently launched OpenSupport, a partner program designed to provide commercial support for open-source designs.
The Art of Design offers perspectives on the techniques and business of electronics design. Ideas may be sent to email@example.com.