Wednesday, July 11, 2007

open ideas

For the Slashdot crowd this is a couple of days old news. OpenMoko launched their phone that runs on a "GNU / Linux based open software development platform" and allows "full access to OpenMoko source". And of course it's labeled as the iPhone killer. People have a lot of labels that they don't know what to do with just lying around. And they tend to slap them on stuff whenever opportunity arises.
But the "open phone" issue and its implications are obvious here. At first you may be inclined to think about this product as being open source. The reality is that, even if the electronics inside are well documented and cost friendly choices from different manufacturers, the hardware is not open source. There's a company that manufactures the actual phone by putting together the pieces and selling it. They made the effort of opening the software platform to the community. But it's still about the money. Sticking an OS tag on a product and throwing the software problem in the OS crowd's yard is a good strategy for building a business. It's cost effective and it looks good in the headlines.
But can hardware be open sourced?
This question has been brewing in my head since my monobuddies launched the Open Source Car initiative. In short OScar. The problem is like with this phone but obviously at a larger scale. You have a community of dedicated people who share real interest towards developing a particular type of hardware. How can these individuals work together, share ideas and shape them into a design a commercially feasible product can be built on?
So how can you achieve the end result in an Open Source manner?
I am not convinced that this can be entirely done. The factors that make it hard are the same that differentiate it from Software Development. The end product needs more than time and brain matter. I think that for now it ends at the blueprints.
We can open source the ideas and the designs but we must out source the production. Both these two concepts are good for the global community. Some people may not like one or another. Or both. But in reality there are bigger forces that dictate the economical choices people and companies make. The same big companies that would regard an open source product as a real threat already master the production outsourcing game. The real power lies in the ideas and they currently keep large staffs of engineers on their payrolls to come up with the ideas that provide their competitive advantage.
It's really the experts who need to step up and encourage the movement towards an open source mentality shaped to fit the particularities of the field they're involved in. And maybe, because they are used to getting the palpable final result, they get stuck at trying to find ways to include the end production in the overall process. I really doubt that this can ever be shaped into an open source model. Improving the out source process is and will be the way to go.
We all need to remember that open source used to be the means and not the goal. It's only lately that labels went on sale.

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