What Is Open-Source Hardware? What You Need to Know About Open Hardware

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In addition to “open-source software” we’ve all heard about, there is another open source category known as “open-source hardware” or “open hardware.” It is easy to understand open-source software, but what about hardware? Here is a basic explanation of what “open-source hardware” is and how society can benefit from it.

There is certainly no shortage of definitions of “open-source hardware.” Maybe you can even guess correctly from its name that “open-source hardware” is part of the Open Source culture. To be more precise, here is a good definition by opensource.com:

“Open hardware,” or “open-source hardware,” refers to the design specifications of a physical object which are licensed in such a way that said object can be studied, modified, created, and distributed by anyone.

The obvious answer is that open-source hardware started as a response to the ever-growing popularity of open-source software, but actually this is wrong. It’s more precise to say that the concept of open-source hardware has existed for centuries; only the name is new.

For instance, blueprints, sketches, and diagrams for furniture and appliances are commonly found in the package you purchased. Of course, there is a difference because usually you don’t have the rights to modify or sell the design you get, so technically this isn’t open-source hardware, but the concept is there.

Similarly, computers in the 70s and 80s were sold with diagrams and other documentation that allowed users to customize them. However, probably the biggest step that marked the beginning of modern open hardware was in 2015 when Sun Microsystems published the specifications of its UltraSPARC T1 microprocessor.

Now, 13 years later, you can find thousands of open source designs online. For instance, OpenHardware is one of the places where new open hardware designs are published daily.

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The benefits of open-source hardware are numerous. Some of them include:

  • Makes novelty more accessible to everybody. The biggest benefit of open-source hardware to society is that it triggers progress by making new designs accessible to everybody interested. When hardware design is freely accessible, this no doubt makes it more popular.
  • Leads to improved designs. When everybody can see the design diagram, design flaws are easier to notice, and design improvements are more likely. In fact, this can save lives – just think of all the proprietary product designs, such as cars, that due to a design flaw killed people!
  • Opens new markets. While it is easy to understand why manufacturers are not enthusiastic about disclosing their intellectual property for free, it actually can be the other way around. When your customers have access to the design of your product, and they can make modifications to it, this could be a factor to making a purchase. Very often a customer likes a product, but there are aspects he or she isn’t happy with. In such cases when a user can make modifications to the product because its open design allows it, he or she might consider buying this product.

Open-source hardware has a huge potential. It might not be as popular as open-source software yet, but this will be changing in following years. With the numerous benefits open hardware brings to society, it will become mainstream for sure – it just needs time to gain momentum!

Image credit: Open Hardware Summit 2013

4 comments

  1. Wasn’t/isn’t any breadboard kit going back to crystal radio days an example of “open hardware”?
    Weren’t the first personal computers, such as Apple 1, “open Hardware”?

  2. Well my opinion on this interesting topic is that : “Open Source Hardware is bad for business ”
    First of all the manufactures and the product managers will never allow open source hardware of a product that will go for production and consumption. The reasons are pretty much obvious. No money gain from it. On the contrary they do not care to improve designs because all they want is US to be always able to consume their products. In other words they want us to buy more and more .
    Imagine a smart phone developer company decide going in open source hardware!!!!!!!! Ohhhhh all economy based on smart-phones will go down and thousands even millions of dollars will be thrown away. So much lost and havoc this will bring.
    Lets go to the real world now…! A lot of companies are pressing charges to each others for coping their designs and this is also profitable as well.
    I do not agree in one major thing … Open source Hardware do not open a new market. No I do not agree because you cannot take a open source hardware , modify it and then sell it.! This is not the spirit of an open source in general. Maybe a lot of people have worked on this product to improve it by adding personal time and experience and YOU, ONLY YOU by adding something more then you have the right to sell the entire product!!! No this is not an open source hardware to me at all.
    These open source hardware products must be for everyone and free of course. They cannot be sold by one individual only.
    This is the open source I know.

    • @dragonmouth – exactly, my idea is that open source hardware isn’t a new concept per se, probably the name is still not that popular.
      “you cannot take a open source hardware , modify it and then sell it” – my idea wasn’t to modify it to sell it, rather to modify it for personal use.
      From what I know, open source software faced the same concerns two decades ago but now it has its place on the market. I believe in the future the same will happen to hardware and I am looking forward to it. When there are good open source devices, all these mediocre and overpriced proprietary ones will either have to improve, or disappear. Can’t wait for this to happen! :)

    • “you cannot take a open source hardware , modify it and then sell it”
      It all depends on how you define as “Open Source Hardware”. Many of us have built the computers that we use from components. The PC manufacturers such as Dell, Lenovo, Asus, etc might object to us being able to do that. However, the component manufacturers do not care if they sell their components to OEMs or to private builders. In fact, they might prefer selling to hobbyists because they do not have give them volume discounts. In this case video cards, power supplies, motherboards, etc can be considered Open Source Hardware.

      Component manufacturers might object to hobbyists building their own components from transistors, capacitors, circuit boards, etc. But the parts manufacturers do not care to whom they sell the parts to. In this case, transistors, capacitors, circuit boards, etc can be considered Open Source Software.

      And, yes, you CAN take hardware, modify it and re-sell it. For example, you can take the screen from a broken laptop and make it into an electronic picture frame, and then sell it. The Instructables site is full of similar projects.

      Modifying the arrangement of existing components into new configurations leads to invention of new devices which can the be sold. Open Source Hardware again.

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