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Open hardware and why it is revolutionary - Technician: Columnists

Open hardware and why it is revolutionary

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Posted: Thursday, October 17, 2013 11:54 pm

Most of us that are technologically inclined are familiar with the term open source. It is often used in a software context to mean that the source code of the software is openly accessible and mutable by anyone who possesses the know-how. This software gives designers the freedom to change, improvise and customize the source code to anyone’s use. In essence, open sourcing software enables the software to become a building block rather than an opaque commodity.

The same is difficult to say for hardware. The source code of software can be easily transferred, shared, edited and reproduced via electronic means. Hence, it can be easily turned into a building block. But hardware on the other hand is intricate. Let me explain with an example.

Hardware is a physical entity. A car engine is essentially hardware. It has a design plan of the connections of various components and their interrelated operations. The car manufacturer company owns the design plan document, and it is not shared with the end user. Similarly, electronic hardware has design plans and specifications that describe the components and the underlying electronic connections between chips on the board. Electronic manufacturer, such as Texas Instruments, own these documents which are covered under their intellectual property. 

Imagine if someone gives you the internal engine plan of a car. What would you do with it? Would you be able to change it by pressing some buttons? Will you be able rip the engine apart and install your custom made exhaust and assemble it back? What use is it to you, apart from maybe understanding and troubleshooting if you are a qualified mechanical engineer? Electronic hardware is similar; except the gas fumes and bulky components are replaced by microscopic electronic components. This is the basic difference between hardware and software. The latter is mutable, the former is not. 

Until now, this was how the hardware industry existed, safe under the cover of intellectual property. One never hears of hardware manufacturers such as Texas Instruments fighting intellectual property wars such as Apple and Microsoft. 

In come Arduino and Beaglebone. Both of these are open hardware customizable electronic boards that come with a complete design plan and open source software that runs on top of the hardware. Analogically, your car just came with the complete internal design plan. 

The design plans for Arduino are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. This enables personal and commercial derivatives of the hardware (rewire the boards if you can) to exist under the condition that they are in turn licensed the same. 

Electronic hardware is different from your car engine in that it needs software to run on top of the hardware. Arduino has open sourced the software platform that runs on the boards so that anyone can develop new software that runs the boards. Hence, it gives complete freedom to build your own hardware and software. Arduino comes with hardware that can be assembled by hand. 

The Arduino boards are small and host small microcontrollers. The best in the lot are about half as powerful as contemporary desktops. This allows for you to make small robots of your own.

The more complex the hardware gets, the more difficult and costly it proves to mutate. For this reason, complex motherboards that run computers still remain closed source. Even as open hardware sets in, these are the first steps of a revolution.