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Open-source hardware movement seeks legitimacy

A nonprofit organization, Open Source Hardware Association, is being formed to promote open-source hardware

By , IDG News Service
April 17, 2012 04:35 PM ET

IDG News Service - Inspired by the success of the open-source software movement, a group of technology enthusiasts is looking to unite the fragmented open-source hardware community in an effort to promote hardware innovation.

A group of technologists are establishing the Open Source Hardware Association, formed to promote the creation and sharing of hardware or electronic designs. The association hopes to foster growth in the open-source hardware movement, which carries the open-source ethos of a community working together to tweak and update hardware designs with the goal to improve products.

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The concept of open-source hardware loosely relates to releasing designs of physical hardware -- processors, machines or devices -- to the public for reuse. But there are licensing and legal issues with the concept, as there is with open-source software, and the association hopes to explore those issues while also educating people about the benefits of open hardware, said Alicia Gibb, founder of OSHA.

Open-source hardware is similar to open-source software in that designs could be applied to commercial applications from which companies can make money. While software can be easily reproduced, higher costs could be associated with open-source hardware as manufacturing, material and distribution issues are involved, Gibb said.

"It has many similar principals of open-source software, but differs because hardware is a different beast. Hardware as a physical object has different methods, formats and issues than software," Gibb said.

But the community needs to work together to share, build and upgrade the hardware, which could ultimately lead to sophisticated products, Gibb said. The organization will host the yearly Open Hardware Summit conference in New York City, which will act as a sounding board for hackers, do-it-yourselfers and professionals to discuss devices, manufacturing, design, business and law. Gibb had already been one of the organizers of the conference in the past.

 

"Open-source hardware is a way to share innovation. We publish all the files needed to improve, make derivatives, or re-manufacture the things built," Gibb said.

The open-source hardware movement is centered around enthusiasts and an audience including fashion designers and artists who want to create specific gadgets. Some projects include the creation of a paper piano, and the ongoing "horticultural dome" project for a vegetable garden in a tent in which environmental conditions can be monitored and controlled remotely. The dome project has raised almost US$8,000 from 158 backers on funding website Kickstarter.

Many projects are centered around the Arduino microcontroller, which Gibb said is the "poster child" of the movement and serves as a great example of how open-source hardware works.

"Arduino has been re-manufactured, re-distributed, built in different forms with different features, and everyone is still thriving," Gibb said.

New open-source hardware designs are capable of creating fully operational PCs. The BeagleBone is a mini-motherboard with ARM CPUs capable of running full Linux operating systems. ARM CPUs are mainly used in smartphones and tablets.

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