“What designs would you open if product sales were your primary source of income?”
The Open Hardware Summit was held last week, and I had the pleasure of attending. The principles of open licensing are simple: share all design files into the public domain and place no ownership or restrictions on the technology, allowing the community to learn from and build on it without wasting time 'reinventing the wheel.'
The reason I was so excited to attend OHWS was the license's requirement disallowing the use of a non-commercial clause. This clause means that the designer cannot limit others' use of the design files for commercial purposes. Many people worry that a design can be copied as-is and produced at a lower price than the designer offers thanks to reduced R&D costs. I am not yet sure how valid the concern is, however the outcome is currently being defined which makes for a very exciting time.
There are many companies that embrace the open source approach with all of their designs. By dumb luck I sat next to Nate, CEO of Sparkfun on the flight back to Denver. When asked why he gives designs away, he said that it started in order to make customer service easier and better. From there, they continued opening designs because they understood that they would be reversed engineered even if closed. He and his team use the knowledge that the competition is close on their heels to drive them to innovate faster and provide value outside of the physical product and price. Talk about motivation!
There are others that find deviations from the OHW license as something to consider. Chris Anderson from DIY Drones said in his keynote address that there are many varying uses for opening designs depending on different businesses. Marco Perry from Pensa spoke about his company's move towards opening some designs while recognizing there are many applications that will never work with any open license. Marco was the source of my favorite quote from the event, saying People copying you is a business problem, not an open source problem.
As open licensing becomes used more often in business, there are some that find the completely open approach to be a risk to their bottom line and are becoming more closed. Bre Pettis from Makerbot gave a talk on the challenges that they have seen in people using their own designs to undercut them, and why they decided to close parts of the most recent Replicator 2.
I must admit that I see this almost like a movie playing out since the entire conversation will be over soon. The time it takes to reverse engineer a design is getting shorter. Low-cost manufacturers are reaching markets faster and faster with knock-offs. In the end, closing a design will only prevent your customers from having it as the competition will have figured it out on their own. But until then, my favorite question to ask people in the industry will still be, “What designs would you open if sales were your primary source of income?”