SAN JOSE, Calif. – There's no doubt that engineers like the idea of open-source hardware. There are an increasing number of open-source hardware board designs – Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Beagleboard and many others – that enable hobbyist projects and the reuse of board designs in commercial products. And many engineers are putting a lot of time into enabling these movements via collaborative work online and through the creation of vibrant online communities.
What is less clear is whether such movements will scale into the commercial world. There is a lack of clear business model and dependence, in some cases, on the donation of engineers' time by commercial organizations. That was one of the conclusions from a panel discussion moderated by EE Times editor-in-chief Alex Wolfe.
Over its short life the Raspberry Pi low-cost single-board computer, based on an ARM11-based system-chip from Broadcom, has been a phenomenal success in terms of shipments. But what remains unclear is how widely the board is fulfilling its original brief of teaching young people how to program or is being adopted as a building block in commercial embedded equipment designs.
Gert Van Loo, senior principal engineer with Broadcom Corp. in Cambridge, England, and architect of the prototype of the Raspberry-Pi computer board, said that commercial uptake has been gated by considerations of whether the Raspberry Pi Foundation can guarantee to be able to supply boards in five or ten years time. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is doing its best to make those assurances, he said.
Another road-block is the case that writing the license terms for open-source hardware is complex compared with open-source software, the panelists offered. Jason Kridner, software architecture manager with Texas Instruments and co-founder of BeagleBoard.org, commented: "It is cheap to replicate bits but it is expensive to replicate atoms."
Chris Taylor, engineering project manager with SparkFun Electronics (Boulder, Colorado), said that there are issues that make convergence on a unified open-source license for hardware much harder than it has been for the open-source software movement. SparkFun is an online vendor of components for the "maker" community. "The Open-Source Hardware Association is still trying to figure out how that [license terms] will play. A hardware license is nebulous but there is work with Creative Commons [organization]," Taylor said. One camp thinks a universal license can be created; another camp doesn't, he added.
Taylor made his position clear when he said the creation of a single licensing environment for OSH is neither likely nor necessary and that many types of license would be tried. "OSH is built on that chaos. No one is ever going to agree on one license," he said.
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From left to right: Alex Wolfe, editor-in-chief of EE Times, moderates panelists Jason Kridner, software architecture manager at Texas Instruments; Chris Taylor, engineering project manager at SparkFun Electronics; Pierre Michael, co-founder of Party Robotics; and Gert Van Loo, senior principal engineer with Broadcom Corp.