A Brief Essay About the Benefits of Open-Source Hardware #openhardware

  • Didn't have a photo to go with this article, so here's a picture of a cat with an Arduino

    The Other Benefits of Open-Source Hardware

    Lots of people have been talking about (and questioning) the economic value of open-source
    hardware. The most frequent question/criticism is that OSH facillitates the ripping off of the
    original designer. That is, they publish their work openly and then someone else takes this work,
    produces a product, and sells it. None of the money from this sale goes to the original designer.
    In the case of less scrupulous manufacturers, no attribution is cited and all identifying marks
    are removed from the product. Under these conditions, it would be rather difficult to take legal
    recourse, particularly if said manufacturer is based somewhere overseas.

    The argument itself is quite valid — the above scenario could happen, and I know for a fact that
    it does happen. And there’s really not a damn thing you can do about it. It happens to people
    whose work is protected by copyright too, if that makes you feel any better.

    The problem I have with the argument above is that it’s only valid when the hardware is being
    sold (or intended to be sold) commercially. This represents one way to make money from your
    work, but it’s not the only way. The work itself has value too.

    In her keynote address at the Open Hardware Summit, LadyAda pointed out that one of the
    prime benefits of doing open hardware is that it makes you a better engineer. I’m inclined to
    agree. From this standpoint, the OSH community is sort of a ‘peer-review’ journal with a very
    low barrier to entry (can you put it on the internet?) and worldwide exposure (make something
    cool and the blogs will pick it up). Within a week you’ll receive LOTS of peer review. Some will
    be positive, much of it will be negative. Most of the negative stuff you can ignore (see rebuttal),
    but a portion of the negative will be constructive, and that’s the part you should pay attention to.
    This instant feedback is usually in the form of blog comments. When people really start looking
    at what you’ve done and begin making changes, adding things, or using it in projects, that’s the
    real peer review. It’s also the most rewarding part.

    But how can this make you money, or at least help you in your professional life? The answer
    is simple: it raises your profile, gets you props, and gives you cred. There are plenty of people
    who bank on their own rep and get paid. That’s basically what you’re doing when you send out a
    resume or CV — it’s all about what you’ve done and how you did it.

    In the terms of this discussion, you get cred for three things: good design, great docs, and
    actually completing the project. Good design and great documentation are fairly obvious. The
    last one sounds ridiculous, but it’s not. I have no actual data to back this up, but I’m willing to bet
    that the ratio of unfinished vs finished projects in the world at any moment is about 100:1, and
    I’m probably being generous.

    Lots of people have great ideas every day. Some people act on them. And then there are the
    proud, rare few who actually finish what they’ve started. It’s not easy, particularly if you have
    other things to do. Still, if you can take a project from conception through design to building and
    testing, and then document the hell out of it and put it out into the wild in a finished and working
    state, you get insane cred. And not just among the relatively few people who see it on a blog
    and comment: “cool project!” (p.s. god bless those people).

    Let’s say two engineers (A & B) want to apply to graduate school. The only project Engineer A
    has on her CV is her senior project, which doesn’t work the way it should and is only minimally
    documented (which pretty much describes every senior engineering project ever).

    Engineer B is very similar to A — she has the same grades and a similar ‘almost working’ senior
    project. But B also put together a neat little open-source hardware project on her own time, fully
    tested, with complete documentation. It’s not as complex as her senior project, but it actually
    works. She puts this on her CV, along with a link to the project. She also sends an email to the
    department chair telling this person about her project, and mentioning that she might be thinking
    about applying to grad school at his prestigious university.

    If you were the department chair, who would you more like to admit into your program? The
    person who is just like every other applicant, or the person who has shown the initiative and
    ability to take a project from start to finish? I’m not dumb enough to make some guarantee that
    doing OSH will get you into grad school, but it definitely can’t hurt you.

    It’s very similar in the professional world. You have your resume and references just like
    everybody else. The thing that will make you stand out is the self-motivated and fully realized
    work you’ve done on the side by yourself. The demonstrated ability to document your projects
    comes into play here too. Engineers hate documentation. HATE IT. Because it sucks. But
    it’s a necessary evil — you can’t (or at least you shouldn’t) sell a product to a customer without
    documentation. Engineers who can write docs are a valuable asset to any company — in fact,
    they are critical, and always in short supply.

    The open-source hardware community gives you the opportunity to “publish” your work and show off your skills,
    be recognized for them, and eventually be rewarded for them. The reward may or may not be monetary,
    but there’s plenty of good karma and experience to be had, and lots of cred.


    If you want to discuss this post, or tell me I’m wrong and call me names, you can do that here.