Open hardware: The future of tech or a flop?

Several innovations in modern software can be attributed to the fact they either they are open source themselves or are derivatives of open source software. This means that anyone can access blueprints for the software so they can modify it for their own particular purposes. Software that runs the world is open source, like MacOS and Android, the former being based off the open source Unix kernel and the latter being fully open source to this day. The open source Linux kernel is run by billions of devices worldwide, including 50% of servers, 30% of embedded systems and 75% of all smartphones. The open source software model allows people to create wild and varied derivatives, and allows volunteers to locate and fix security flaws. However it also means that your competitors know exactly what software you use and how it works, so you have no secrets. It also allows nefarious actors to very easily add malicious code and create their own release masquerading as your software, which has been used for multiple cyberattacks, most recently when an unknown group of hackers planed ransomware into the BitTorrent client “Transmission” and remained undetected for weeks, deleting swathes of data from dozens of computers.

It also allows nefarious actors to very easily add malicious code and create their own release masquerading as your software, which has been used for multiple cyberattacks, most recently when an unknown group of hackers planed ransomware into the BitTorrent client “Transmission” and remained undetected for weeks, deleting swathes of data from dozens of computers.

More recently open source has also been attempted in the world of hardware. A very recent creation is the RISC-V architecture, which is a new open source instruction set for computer processors, which is far easier to use than the current norm, which is the inlet x86 instruction set. The project began in 2010 at the University of California, Berkeley. The aim of the project is to provide several designs for CPU’s freely available under a simple open source license, which allows derivative works to be open and free or closed source, which is in vast contract to conventional chip vendors which charge significant licensing fees for the use of their patents, and also require the signing of NDA’s typically as well. This secrecy makes security audits impossible, which has in the past led to large, well publicised security vulnerabilities such as the so called “Meltdown” and “Spectre” vulnerabilities.

This secrecy makes security audits impossible, which has in the past led to large, well publicised security vulnerabilities such as the so called “Meltdown” and “Spectre” vulnerabilities.

In simpler devices there are also examples of open source hardware, but typically as endeavours of individuals who do not have the resources to mass produce hardware. One of the most well known examples is the “VESC” a hobby project by a German electrical engineer that became the de facto standard for skateboard motor controllers due to it’s performance and versatility. Vedder released all the files and software online, and deliberately chose inexpensive and easy to use components, with the end result that his speed controller was one of the lowest priced and most capable electronic speed controllers (ESCs) on the market, and because all the software was also freely available people adjusted it too, creating advanced control modes such as “field oriented control” and allowing you to use anything from a conventional R/C car remote to a Wii nunchuck as the controller. Very rapidly Vedder’s design was adopted by everyone from bespoke manufacturers to factories in china turning out hundreds of them, and despite the design being almost five years old it is still used to this day, with there also being far more improved versions available with completely different hardware design, and many derivatives with more performance, or easier to build or many other changes.

There is an issue with open source hardware projects however, and it is that all open source licences have no licensing fees or anything along those lines for the original creator. So if the project becomes wildly popular, then the original creator may feel cheated, and as a result no longer wants to innovate and iterate upon his design, or he chooses to take subsequent designs closed source.

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