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

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

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