In This Issue
Fall Bridge on Open Source Hardware
September 15, 2017 Volume 47 Issue 3
The articles in this issue look at how the development and use of free and open source hardware (FOSH or simply “open hardware”) are changing the face of science, engineering, business, and law.

Op-ed: To the Moon and Beyond: Open Source and Open Innovation

Friday, September 15, 2017

Author: Tom Callaway

I was born in 1980, which means I am a member of the last generation that can remember a time before the Internet was a ubiquitous part of life in America. I recall my first computer fondly, the IBM XT, and typing in BASIC programs that my father photocopied for me, but what really stuck with me was how incredible it was to connect my modem to a bulletin board system (BBS) and leave messages for other people.

Today, America is always-on, real-time, and live-streamed. This is the practical reality that my children were born into. The world is heading toward a future society of a single digital civilization. In fact, as William Gibson so aptly said, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Yet technology is still produced in much the same way as in 1980. I’m not referring to methods or transistor count, but to the belief that a small subset of people are better at producing technology in isolation than anyone else. It may have been possible to argue this case back then, when a day’s research at the largest nearby library counted as due diligence, but today it is simply no longer true. No matter how smart the people are in any given company, the resulting technology is not as innovative as it would be if built in a collaborative fashion.

There is historical evidence to back this assertion. A core reason for the success of the Apollo program was the more than 400,000 engineers, scientists, and technicians working for more than 20,000 companies and universities who contributed to an effort that NASA could not have succeeded at alone and definitely not in the time available. The expertise, skills, and resources of a single individual, company, or community simply are not sufficient. In order to innovate competitively, you must collaborate with others and leverage their expertise, skills, and resources. This approach is now known as open innovation.

The Internet makes this sort of collaboration possible in a way that previously required a presidential mandate. Need expertise in power management, fire suppression, underwater optics, or hit-box algorithms? It’s a few clicks away.

I’ve worked for Red Hat (the world’s largest and most successful open source software company) for 16 years, which is not long in academic epochs but in the IT industry is practically forever. Red Hat has made its business model entirely on the value proposition that software can be produced better and faster by applying the concepts of open innovation.

Red Hat customers are not locked into a software but instead work with us to solve their IT problems. As CEO Jim Whitehurst said, “it’s a neat trick to sell $2 billion of something that’s technically free.” Red Hat is proof that open innovation works as well today as it did in 1969.

The web pages you view are hosted by open source–powered servers, sent across open source–powered networking equipment to your open source–powered tablet or smartphone. Your car, DVR, and home security system use an ever increasing number of open source software solutions, not just because they are free but because they are good and, more importantly, they can be made better by anyone.

All of this logic applies to hardware. Hardware produced in an open source model results in faster innovation and higher-quality results. When a solution is developed for a problem, others are not forced by restrictive patents and licensing to reinvent that solution but can simply use it and tackle new problems.

The open source hardware movement is already starting to be realized. In Make: magazine’s 3D -Printer -Buyer’s Guide, three of the five “Best Overall” 3D -printers are open source hardware (Prusa i3 MK2, Lulzbot TAZ, SeeMeCNC Rostock MAX). The Arduino is one of the most common microcontroller boards on the planet and it is completely open source hardware.

At Red Hat we know open source and open innovation work—we have built our business around these concepts. They also empower society and make it possible to push the limits of what is possible. When the barriers to collaboration are lifted, people can accomplish incredible things.

About the Author:Tom Callaway is senior software engineer, Red Hat, Inc.