Open Source – Leading to Bigger Leaps in Innovation
Although the term “open source” is often assumed to imply “free”, the open-source software movement was born more of a philosophical desire for freedom than a wish to save money.
The logic - that open communities where people can share, improve, and use each other’s ideas without restriction can achieve greater and faster progress - appears sound. However, Sid Sijbrandij’s (co-founder and CEO of GitHub) article for Forbes magazine explains that evolving the open-source licensing model to let inventors monetise their creativity has helped significantly strengthen the movement. Open-source could be indebted to the legal skills that have helped create such a platform, which is permissive and flexible yet at the same time prevents any one organisation from gaining overall control.
The terms of an open-source software license demand more than simply making source code available. The originator cannot apply restrictions on the redistribution of the original software, or its aggregation into other distributions, or derivation of further products, which are to be distributed under the same license terms as the original work. There are several other provisos, which are designed to protect the integrity of the original author’s work, prevent discrimination, prevent deliberate obfuscation of source code or imposition of additional restrictions, and guard against the creation of product- or technology-specific programs. The Open Source Initiative (OSI), which celebrated its 20th anniversary this summer, has created a license review process that verifies all these criteria are met before officially recognising any software product submitted for approval.
Naturally, there are occasional misunderstandings between creators and users of open-source software. The legal dispute between Korea-based productivity-software developer Hancom and Artifex, which develops core software for document handling and management, provides a case in point. Hancom incorporated open-source software by Artifex in its Office suite and, under the terms of the GNU General Public License, should either have open-sourced its own product or paid a fee to Artifex. Unfortunately, Hancom did neither, so Artifex filed a lawsuit. This was eventually settled in late 2017 under confidential terms.
Google has recently been handed an enormous fine of over €4bn by the European Commission for alleged abuses of its dominant position in the Android market. Google intends to appeal, of course but, as the creator of Android, was found to have attempted to suppress forks of its OS, among other antitrust contraventions. A fork is derived from an existing distribution and subsequently developed as a separate project, which is allowed under open-source rules.
On the other hand, disputes conducted in plain view on social media question whether some products meet the spirit of open sourcing: critics of commercial Linux-based software developer Red Hat have suggested the company forked Kubernetes, a system for handling containerised applications, to create its OpenShift container application platform for business users. Because open-source rules permit forking, and in any case OpenShift has been shown technically not to be a fork, this cry of foul appears to be inaccurate. Jonathan Gershater of Red Hat recently explained the differences between a distribution and a fork in his article published on opensource.com, a community website sponsored by Red Hat.
Despite these kinds of disagreements over the fine-print, open source has become a successful model for business-software providers. Moreover, online repositories such as GitHub make a wide variety of code examples accessible to maker communities, who can download and use them directly in their projects. They can also fix, update, or modify them as part of their contribution to the community.
The Open Hardware Challenge
Opening hardware in a similarly permissive and flexible way is a different kind of challenge that has taken longer to accomplish. Issues such as product safety, reliability, legal compliance, warranty support are more are arguably more difficult to address while at the same time adhering to open-source principles.
The Open-Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) successfully developed a set of principles that define open source as it applies to hardware. Based on the definition of open-source software at opensource.org, and enshrining the freedom to make, modify, distribute and use tangible artefacts such as machines or devices, they also recognise that physical resources must always be committed to make them. For this reason, anyone producing items under a OSHW license must clearly state that their activities are not sanctioned by the original designer, and may not use any of the original designer’s trademarks.
Brands like Arduino or Raspberry Pi have now made open hardware extremely accessible and affordable, not only for serious product developers but also for hobbyists and learners. By providing standardised headers that allow users to add custom functions using off-the-shelf shields (which anyone can make under open-source license) make it possible for makers without in-house manufacturing capacity or even PCB layout tools to configure a prototype and start developing using open-source software. These platforms have also become attractive to professional engineers for proof of concept and prototype work, and sometimes even for a short-run products. Many professional engineers are makers in their spare time or have grown up in the maker community and are familiar with the boards and how to use them.
Ideally, according to the OSHWA principles, open-source hardware should be created using open-source design tools. Giving makers the tools they need to get their projects started, and finish them to a high standard, is something that DesignSpark has taken to heart. Many semiconductor manufacturers – particularly microcontroller and power-device vendors – have made free development environments available, either independently or in conjunction with specialist tools vendors. While these certainly help with the circuit-design aspects of a project, DesignSpark now provides access to tools across a broad spectrum of design activities needed to build real working projects. These include DesignSpark PCB, which is free of charge and enables independent designers to capture schematics and create sophisticated designs without having to spend serious money on traditional PCB design tools. There are also the DesignSpark Mechanical and DesignSpark Electrical tools for 3D CAD work, which community members have praised as being easy to learn and use.
Have We Been Here Before?
The open source movement is democratising industrial creativity in a way our generation has not seen before. In the wake of the first industrial revolution, the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century attempted to return control to makers, although the high costs of craftsman-made objects limited its success. Today, with the benefits of semiconductor-industry economics and the programmability and customisation made possible by software, open-source can expand opportunities to conceive and create high-tech products that until now required serious investment in engineering skills and equipment.
We can only guess how many great product ideas have been prevented from coming to market in the past, simply because inventors were prevented from realising their ideas. The greatest benefit to be gained from breaking down the barriers to product realisation may not be the freedom to create, but the ability to bring even more good ideas to fruition to ensure the survival of our economies.