Why We Need Free Digital Hardware Designs | WIRED


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  1. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Why We Need Free Digital Hardware Designs

    Free software is a matter of freedom, not price; broadly speaking, it means that users are free to use the software and to copy and redistribute the software, with or without changes. Applying the same concept directly to hardware, free hardware means hardware that you are free to use and to copy and redistribute with or without changes. But, since there are no copiers for hardware, is the concept of free hardware even possible? The concept we really need is that of a free hardware design.

    Why We Need Free Digital Hardware Designs

    Well, most hardware is made by fabrication from some sort of design. The design comes before the hardware.

    Thus, the concept we really need is that of a free hardware design. That’s simple: it means a design that permits users to use the design (i.e., fabricate hardware from it) and to copy and redistribute it, with or without changes. The design must provide the same four freedoms that define free software. Then “free hardware” means hardware with an available free design.

    For hardware, this confusion tends to go in the other direction; hardware costs money to produce, so commercially made hardware won’t be gratis (unless it is a loss-leader or a tie-in), but that does not
    prevent its design from being free/libre. Things you make in your own 3D printer can be quite cheap, but not exactly gratis since you will have to pay for the raw materials. In ethical terms, the freedom issue trumps the price issue totally, since a device that denies freedom to its users is worth less than nothing.

    The terms “open hardware” and “open source hardware” are used by some with the same concrete meaning as “free hardware,” but those terms downplay freedom as an issue. They were derived from the term “open source software,” which refers more or less to free software but without talking about freedom or presenting the issue as a matter of right or wrong. To underline the importance of freedom, we make a point of referring to freedom whenever it is pertinent; since “open” fails to do that, let’s not substitute it for “free”.

    Ethically, software must be free; a nonfree program is an injustice. Should we take the same view for hardware designs?

    We certainly should, in the fields that 3D printing (or, more generally, any sort of personal fabrication) can handle.

    Distributing a nonfree functional object design is as wrong as distributing a nonfree program.

    Be careful to choose 3D printers that work with exclusively free software; the Free Software Foundation endorses such printers. Some 3D printers are made from free hardware designs, but Makerbot’s hardware designs are nonfree.

    Must we reject nonfree digital hardware?

    Is a nonfree digital hardware(*) design an injustice? Must we, for our freedom’s sake, reject all digital hardware made from nonfree designs, as we must reject nonfree software?

    Freedom to copy and change software is an ethical imperative because those activities are feasible for those who use software: the equipment that enables you to use the software (a computer) is also
    sufficient to copy and change it. Today’s mobile computers are too weak to be good for this, but anyone can find a computer that’s powerful enough.

    How much of this applies to hardware? Not everyone who can use digital hardware knows how to change a circuit design, or a chip design, but anyone who has a PC has the equipment needed to do so. Thus far, hardware is parallel to software, but next comes the big difference.

    You can’t build and run a circuit design or a chip design in your computer. Constructing a big circuit is a lot of painstaking work, and that’s once you have the circuit board. Fabricating a chip is not feasible for individuals today; only mass production can make them cheap enough.

    In 1983 there was no free operating system, but it was clear that if we had one, we could immediately use it and get software freedom. All that was missing was the code for one.

    In 2014, if we had a free design for a CPU chip suitable for a PC, mass-produced chips made from that design would not give us the same freedom in the hardware domain. If we’re going to buy a product mass produced in a factory, this dependence on the factory causes most of the same problems as a nonfree design. For free designs to give us hardware freedom, we need future fabrication technology.

    We can envision a future in which our personal fabricators can make chips, and our robots can assemble and solder them together with transformers, switches, keys, displays, fans and so on. In that future we will all make our own computers (and fabricators and robots), and we will all be able to take advantage of modified designs made by those who know hardware.

  2. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Open Hardware for Open Science – Interview with Charles Fracchia

    Open Science has been a long-standing ideal for many researchers and practitioners around the world. It advocates the open sharing of scientific research, data, processes, and tools and encourages open collaboration. While not without challenges, this mode of scientific research has the potential to change the entire course of science, allowing for more rigorous peer-review and large-scale scientific projects, accelerating progress, and enabling otherwise unimaginable discoveries.

    While some of these challenges are universal, when it comes to Biology and Biomedical Engineering, the road to Open Science is paved with problems that will go beyond crafting proper incentives for researchers and academic institutions.

    It will require building hardware.

    The solution that [Charles] and his team are working on is a range of environmental sensor nodes, designed to be packaged as a part of the standard biological lab equipment. Such nodes could enable an easy collection of necessary data in a “natural” environment of the experiment, making it easier to pinpoint the exact conditions under which the results were obtained.

    It is projects like this, especially if created as Open Hardware, which have the potential to change the Open Science game in Biomedical Research. Affordable, peer-reviewed hardware that every lab can independently manufacture can show the way to standardization in the sharing of experimental data.

  3. Tomi Engdahl says:

    The Makerspace Is the Next Open Source Frontier

    Jono Bacon explains that in the same way open source spawned millions of careers and thousands of companies, the same openness has massive potential when applied to products. It could potentially jumpstart a revolution in how we conceptualize, build, and share things and how we experiment and innovate to push the boundaries of science and technology. He outlines some steps for adapting open source principles to physical creations: “…we will need to create a premise of a blueprint bundle.”

  4. Tomi Engdahl says:

    A Manifesto for Maker

    Why does one go through years of development, consisting mostly of failure, pursuing the elusive goal of performance beyond one’s personal best, when it would mostly be misunderstood by those who had never been there, and when the reward would be only the opportunity to try again to do better? Material reward is tied to such success only loosely — both types of athletes must adapt their economic life to this pursuit of virtuosity.

    We do it because we love to, and we do not yet have an answer to the question of the source of this love. Everywhere on Earth people pursue this same quest, one that will never end, and find fulfillment in the process. This is a mystery.

  5. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Tap Tap Tech – Episode 2 – The Maker Movement

    Hey there, Josh here for OnlineComponents.com, this is Tap Tap Tech. Today, we’re going to discuss the Maker Movement, otherwise known as The Coolest Thing in Technology ever. Just like the garage computer explosion of the 70’s through the 80’s, which brought us such things as Apple, pong, Bill Gate’s hair, and the proliferation of personal computers, the maker movement is the new garage hardware explosion. While Making is strongly associated with electronics, it really is more a matter of scale, particularly small scale. Making is about individual Do-It-Yourselfers being able to design and create with tools that were, as of a decade or two ago, only available to large, cash-rich corporations. CAD tools, CNC mills, 3D printers, low-quantity PCB manufacturing, open hardware such as Arduinos and similar inexpensive development boards – all items that have made it easier and relatively cheap to make whatever we imagine.

    For individuals, maker tools can change how someone views their home or their hobbies. If you want to make a little custom widget that holds your favorite bluetooth speakers onto your bike frame, you can quickly design it, print or make it, and then use it – almost immediately and perfect for your application.

  6. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Julie Bort / Business Insider:
    How Facebook’s Open Compute Project became a major force in data center hardware, with hundreds of companies, including HP, Foxconn, and Goldman Sachs on board — How Facebook is eating the $140 billion hardware market — It started out as a controversial idea inside Facebook.

    How Facebook is eating the $140 billion hardware market

    It started out as a controversial idea inside Facebook. In four short years, it has turned the $141 billion data-center computer-hardware industry on its head.

    Facebook’s extraordinary Open Compute Project is doing for hardware what Linux, Android, and many other popular products did for software: making it free and “open source.”

    That means that anyone can look at, use, or modify the designs of the hugely expensive computers that big companies use to run their operations — all for free. Contract manufacturers are standing by to build custom designs and to build, in bulk, standard designs agreed upon by the group.

    In software, open source has been revolutionary and disruptive. That movement created Linux, which is the software running most data centers around the world, and Android, the most popular smartphone platform in the world.

    Jonathan Heiliger dreamed up OCP in 2011 back when he was leading Facebook’s infrastructure team

    It started off with Facebook’s data centers.

    Most companies lease space in already existing data centers. But for huge tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon, it’s more efficient to build their own.

    The trouble was, in 2011, data centers were becoming known as one of the dirtiest, carbon-spewing parts of the tech industry.

    Facebook built its state-of-the-art data center in Prineville, Oregon, where it invented ways to use less electricity. So Facebook published the Prineville designs to contribute to the green data-center movement.

    Then it occurred to Heiliger: Why not share all of the Facebook’s hardware designs?

    Heiliger argued that the technology, particularly the hardware, “is not our competitive advantage.” and that “open source should be a core tenet at Facebook.”

    There are some huge advantages to making hardware open source.

    Hardware engineers, no matter who they work for, could collaborate. Ideas would flow. New tech would be invented more quickly. Difficult tech problems are fixed faster. And everyone would to share equally in the results.

    It would be 180 degrees from the classic culture of patents and lawsuits and trade secrets that has ruled the tech industry for decades. But Facebook didn’t make hardware, so there was no risk to its business.

    Zuck was in. One argument was particularly persuasive: “A company in Mountain View thinks their tech was a differentiator. We didn’t believe that,” Heiliger says, referring to the fact that Google builds much of its own hardware and a lot of its own software and keeps most of that stuff a closely guarded secret.

    Now that OCP has become a phenomenon, Google’s top hardware-infrastructure guy (a legend in his world), Urs Hölzle, offers a begrudging respect for the project

    When asked about OCP, Hölzle told us, “It actually makes a lot of sense because it’s open source for hardware. It’s relatively basic today,” he said. “It could be the start of something a little bit deeper.”

    “It will be relevant only for the very, very large companies — for the Facebooks, the Ebays, the Microsofts.”

    That’s because Helinger did several smart things when he started this project.

    First, he hired Frank Frankovsky away from Dell to help Facebook invent hardware and to lead Open Compute Project. Frankovsky quickly became its face and biggest evangelist.

    Next, he got Intel, a much older company with lots of experience in open source, on board. Intel’s legal team set up OCP’s legal structure

    Then, he asked Goldman Sachs’ Don Duet to join the board.

    He knew they were onto something almost immediately at OCP’s first conference.

    “We thought maybe 50 people would show up.” Instead over 300 came. “That was incredible,” he remembers.

    Goldman has been happy to buy OCP servers.

    Duet says Godman will never go back to buying servers the old way. “We’ve been clear to the vendor community. There’s no reason to go backwards. We didn’t go back after adopting open-source operating systems.”

    The man told him that OCP had turned his company into a $1 billion business, with hundreds of new customers.

    “You convinced us that it was the right thing to do and it was going to be ok, and we’re not only more profitable but we see new channels of business we hadn’t seen before. It wouldn’t have happened without you,”

    Last December, Frankovsky left Facebook to launch his own OCP hardware-inspired startup, too, an optical-storage startup still in stealth. He remains the chairman of the OCP project. And there have been other startups, like Rex Computing, launched by a teenage electronics wunderkind.

    But perhaps the biggest watershed moment for OCP happened just a few weeks ago, on March 10, 2015.

    He said HP’s server unit had agreed to become an OCP contract manufacturer and had launched a new line of OCP servers.

    Both HP and Dell had been watching and involved in OCP for years, even contributing to the designs. But behind the scenes they were not completely on board.

    One day, Frankovsky hopes that Cisco will follow HP’s lead and join the open-source hardware movement.

    The open-source hardware movement will lead to its own massive hits that will totally change the industry.

    And there’s a good reason for that, says Frankovsky: “Openness always wins, as long as you do it right. You don’t want to wind up on the wrong side of this one. It’s inevitable.”


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