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Open Hardware, Open Process

The Open Hardware Summit Goes West

Sports is all about competition. But some sports promote a particular form of camaraderie that keeps the competition going, but without the aggression. Skateboarding is one such sport.

To my mind, it’s an insanely difficult sport. My son picked it up at a young age, and I watched as he worked over and over to nail his first Ollie. They say that first one takes about a year to get, and then the rest starts to go faster. But make no mistake: an Ollie involves pushing down on a skateboard in such a way that it rises into the air In apparently defiance of physics. Makes no sense to me, but the proof can be had at any skate park, where dozens of kids demonstrate the focus and persistence of years learning and perfecting the dizzying array of moves, all of which seem impossible.

But what stands out in particular for me is the way skaters relate to each other. They’re all competing, whether or not there’s a formal competition underway. But they will all cheer each participant as he or she takes a turn, whether or not there was an amazing display or an unfortunate error. There’s a collaborative sense of, “We’re all part of a family, doing this thing we love,” even as they try to outdo each other. Angry glares and “getting inside your competitor’s head” is replaced by backslaps and shows of respect. While skateboarding may have a bad reputation for some, it – and other similar sports – show a kinder, gentler, more respectful kind of competition.

As we’ve seen, many small-scale designers have taken on the identity of “maker.” While they may not order volumes of devices themselves, an attribute that got them ignored in the past, these days they may well be doing a design for some other company that will order volumes. Suddenly, they’re getting a bit more love.

That said, a few hours spent at the Open Hardware Summit (making its West Coast debut) a couple months ago shows that there’s a very different culture at play here. This is where “maker” meets “hacker.” Yes, not all makers are hackers, and not all hackers are makers (both being abused monikers). But there is a specific ethos that focuses much more on problem solving and technology than commercial value.

5 (plus) Principles. Or those other 5.

The range of presenters went from educators to people working on real projects. And, early on, we got a review of the 5 principles of hacking. Now… I took some notes and, going back to them, noticed that what I had listed didn’t exactly equal 5. So I did some googling and found that there are multiple versions of the 5 principles, and then there are some add-ons.

Let’s start with the Wikipedia definition:

  •     “Sharing
  •     Openness
  •     Decentralization
  •     Free access to computers
  •     World Improvement”

There are then some more specific versions that overlap with this, originating in the seminal book, “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution” by Steven Levy in 1984.

  • “Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
  • All information should be free
  • Mistrust authority—promote decentralization
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not criteria such as degrees, age, race, sex, or position
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer
  • Computers can change your life for the better”

This last list agreed, word-for-word, with what I had noted. But in my search, I found another 5 principles, and, while they’re similar in tone, they don’t completely overlap. These come from a blog entitled Sun Tzu, attributed to Eric Steven Raymond:

  • “The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
  • No problem should ever have to be solved twice.
  • Boredom and drudgery are evil.
  • Freedom is good.
  • Attitude is no substitute for competence.”

Then there’s yet another 5 principles, according to one Tanya Snook (aka spydergrrl):

  • “Challenge accepted! (Barriers are welcomed)
  • Blow away the box. Look for unexpected ways to make something better.
  • Bring your friends. Unique perspectives create more robust solutions.
  • Give it away now. Information and knowledge should be shared openly, freely.
  • Pay it forward. Teach the next generation to think like a hacker.”

So… lots of variations. But a similar mindset, all in all.

We’ve been challenged by some of these notions before, specifically in the form of open-source software and hardware. This by-now mainstream notion challenged traditional corporate culture, where design details were proprietary and outside comments on designs are not necessary, thanks anyway.

But the way designs get done, as discussed at the Summit, went far beyond simple open source. It was more like “open process.”

An Open Process

With open source, you put your final goods up for all to see and critique, and some folks will take it and make it better, others will take it and make adaptations for different situations, and yet others will simply take it. Support or a more formal relationship might involve the exchange of legal tender, but the basic design is up there for all to see.

But with this open process thing, it’s like you’re doing the entire development in public. You’re posting revisions and status, and it’s like the whole world is doing your design review for you. It’s practically a team sport, with bleachers full of people watching your every move.

It also fits well with the whole agile thing, since you’re getting real-time feedback on the results of each sprint, and you can work that feedback into the next round (or a future round).

All of that is interesting, but, just like open source, this seems to fly in the face of typical Western business practices, where you keep secrets so that you can compete more effectively. The notion of “information should be free” isn’t really new – it’s what underlies our patent system. The idea there is that the government grants a legal monopoly on ideas in exchange for you showing the world what your great new idea was. This disclosure promotes ongoing innovation – within the limits of the rights conferred to the patent holder. (To be clear, the information is free. The product may cost more because there’s less competition…)

But, as anyone who has spent a few minutes reading a patent disclosure can attest, it’s really hard to figure out what they say. They’re anything but transparent – and intentionally so. Primarily, that’s so that they can leave enough wiggle room in case someone tries to find loopholes. It can also help if the owner finds new ways to use the patent in the future. You want as broad a potential interpretation as possible, so you make the whole thing abstract. If the impenetrability helps to keep someone else from understanding what you did, then so much the better (even though that specifically contravenes the intention of the patent notion).

So, technically, patents provide free information. Practically speaking, it doesn’t feel transparent (although people still pore through patents – if you spend the time, you can learn things).

But the transparency in the hacker methodology is something quite different. Here there appears to be a genuine desire to share and collaborate, even with possible competitors. The technology is what matters; solving the problem is what matters; the respect of your peers is what matters. There’s so much less focus on earning a return on investment.

Which brings up the obvious question: is this an ethic that can thrive only on the fringes, supplemented by resources made available through traditional commercial means? Or could our entire industry operate this way and succeed?

For one thing, it feels like this mindset appeals to a particular slice of humanity. One of those “it’s all about me” uber-competitive testosterone beasts charging out of business school to earn ALL the money would not do well. And, to some extent, there’s the principle of aggression ultimately triumphing over unwavering passivity and the Tragedy of the Commons. There’s always going to be someone that will say, “Thanks for the free ideas; no, I’m not giving back.”

It’s hard to say what impact this movement has on more traditional development. My guess would be that most mainstream engineers are unaware of it. It certainly takes extra time and commitment – better yet if you can break free of corporate constraints and work independently. Which wouldn’t describe most technology development as experienced by most of us.

In the end, I see it somewhat like I see skateboarding. I’m not sure I could do it, and I’m not sure it will save the world or transform the business community at large, but I’ll also watch it with some sense of wonder and respect. In its purest form, it’s certainly not harming anything, and if it moves technology forward without anyone coming away feeling used or deceived, then at worst it’s neutral. More likely, it’s helpful.


More info:

Open Source Hardware Association


4 thoughts on “Open Hardware, Open Process”

  1. Two notes about open hardware, from my own past experiences.

    The first was a public domain contribution (truely free of ALL license/copyright restrictions), MacSCSI

    Shortly after the Mac 256K Byte machines were released, several of my software developer friends bought them, and became Mac software developers. Apple’s evangelists trying to get software for the new platform, formed MacSEF (Software Entrepreneurs Forum) meeting regularly in one of the Apple conference rooms.

    At the time I had a contract to deliver a SCSI host adapter that transparently emulated the WD1000 chipset, as a drop in replacement for that MFM controller. The design was a fairly traditional bit-slice controller design, with address space decodes for all the enables, using C based firmware on a Motorola M68008 driving the host bus and NCR 5380 SCSI interface, plus a few a few PALs and TTL buffers.

    I was loaned a Mac256, with floppy drives, and early Alpha copies of MacDraw and MacPCB, for schematics and 2-layer over night PCBs from an Oakland shop using the Mac with optics to directly expose film for a home brew gerber printer to film. And in a couple weeks 2-layer prototypes with schematics evolved.

    But working on the Mac with 400k floppies was a huge time sink, for a developer used to fast UNIX machines.

    Frustrated with the extreme slowness I broke out a vector board, populated it with a couple rom sockets, NCR5380, a PAL and blue wires. A couple hours later I had the NCR 5380 on the Mac’s address/data bus hosted from the Mac ROM sockets. I gutted an open source RAM Disk driver, and replaced it’s core with a simple SCSI initiator driver. 5 hours later I was back working on the contract, with a very fast SCSI drive replacing the floppies.

    A few days later I used MacPCB and did a real 2 layer board to replace the vector board prototype, with a short 50 board run to share with my MacSEF friends.

    It was an instant success, despite it’s crude beginning. Cheaper and order of magnitude faster than the Apple Profile drive. It was arranged to publish the design in DDJ as a public domain contribution.

    Steve Job’s had this strict policy about the Mac being a closed case design, with the only attachment point being the slow serial Apple Bus.

    When the MacSCSI DDJ article hit the street he went through the roof that hackers were doing Add-In’s for the Mac. I found myself persona non-grata at Apple and MacSEF, while the Apple hardware developers had a gun placed to their head to incorporate MacSCSI onto the motherboard, and pushed into production in three months ahead of MacWorld in Jan as the MacPlus, which was a huge hit for it’s speed, cost and size over a floppy/profile based system.

    Joel took the MacSCSI design with my help, and sold them as Mac256/512 upgrades compatible with the MacPlus at the same MacWorld show, much to Steve’s dismay.

    I delivered the emulating WD1000 SCSI host adapter to production a few weeks later, after having to buy my own Mac512 to finish the development.

    My friend at NCR that gave me the samples that made this possible, got Apple as a design win. Everybody was happy, except maybe Steve, still fuming about the DDJ article and my hacking of his closed architecture.

    The second story, is I had a great time with early RepRap machines, but found the Arduino shield construction painful, with some reliability issues.

    Having a few spare days, I did a single board design, with a significantly faster CPU, plus a few bells and whistles like stepper drivers that were faster and much more robust in the face of wiring errors. Sent it out to fab, had a few made, and spent more than several months finishing development to product release level. Then shared a few of them with some friends.

    A company that was making a fair bit of money in this new industry pushed me very hard to release the enhanced single board design into the RepRap community. I said no, and got a strong lecture about giving back to the community, and how I wasn’t doing my share. Out of work, and with three kids to support, I was thinking more about paying my bills, and how to turn this into revenue. I offered full rights to the design at a low, and exceptionally fair cost to the company, to cover my time … suggesting they buy it, and release it to the community in both our names. They refused, and continued to beat me up for not giving the design away.

    I do encourage people to contribute into the community. I strongly encourage this is done public domain, or Creative Commons Attribution.

    At the same time, there are a LARGE number of bottom feeding companies that save millions from open source hardware/software and do not do their share at all. And some of these companies, absolutely refuse to share open access to their products. The open source licenses do not stop this, or provide incentives to.

    What does make a difference, is when our work turns into products that help non-technical people around the world. Sometimes the best way to do that, is simply public domain, when we do not have the resources or connections to put it into low cost production.

  2. As a hacker I’ve always sided with Tanya Snook’s view’s … the Challenge, and “Blow away the box. Look for unexpected ways to make something better.” The MacSCSI and FpgaC projects did that in some incredibly significant ways. The more significant aspects of both, where sharp right turns for critical markets.

    Prior to MacSCSI forcing Steve to adopt the low cost NCR5380 SCSI solution in the Mac Product line, SCSI was a slowly evolving low volume, high cost technology in search of a high volume adopter.

    The SCSI design win in the MacPlus and HD20 products, also put Rodime’s very large and fast embedded SCSI drives into high volume production.

    With external break-out and pin-out conversion cabling, tape drives, scanners, and other SCSI products where quickly available on Mac’s. All products which needed much higher bandwidth than Apple Talk would support.

    With Rodime’s fast embedded SCSI drives in volume production, SCSI storage for the evolving UNIX work station market dropped significantly in price, allowing workstation vendors to reach significantly lower price points that were critical for their success.

    The success of SCSI, forced a migration from external MFM controllers, to embedded IDE controllers on hard drives … ending separate control and data cables with external controllers and separate drives.

    This allowed rapid evolution of logical drive addressing and coding technology to increase bandwidth, reliability, and capacity, since it was no longer visible at the drive interface. IDE/ATA stumbled with this a bit as drive sizes increased.

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