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Hardware Is Now Open (sourced) For Business

samzenpus posted about 9 months ago | from the free-and-open-model dept.

Businesses 42

ptorrone writes "CNBC has an interesting article about the growing trend of hardware companies going open-source. 'The open-source hardware movement is migrating from the garage to the marketplace. Companies that follow an open-source philosophy make their physical designs and software code available to the public. By doing so, these companies engage a wave of makers, hobbyists and designers who don't just want to buy products, but have a hand in developing them.'"

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42 comments

Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45261759)

Seriously though, Commodore, (Apple?), and lots of others used to provide complete wiring schematics either with their hardware, or as a seperately available book up to what, the mid to late 80s?

If the PC and related technology hadn't taken off, would anybody even be talking about 'open hardware' nowadays, or would that just have continued to be the assumed norm?

Just some food for thought.

Re:Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45261943)

Oh yes in the 1960s all "lab" grade electronics like power supplies, oscilloscopes, whatevers, came with thick manuals with schematics, part lists and theory of operation as well as the basic user manual.

Re:Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (4, Insightful)

Rob Riggs (6418) | about 9 months ago | (#45262263)

Oh yes in the 1960s all "lab" grade electronics like power supplies, oscilloscopes, whatevers, came with thick manuals with schematics, part lists and theory of operation as well as the basic user manual.

That's still the norm for many Amateur Radio products. What is missing from many products supplied by the big name manufacturers these days is source code for the embedded MCUs.

Many radios and test equipment used to be available in kit form too. But that has gone away since the advent of surface mount technology. Most Amateurs don't have the equipment, patience or eyesight to do SMT at home. Besides, pick and place robots will assemble a circuit board in minutes, reducing labor cost to a few cents per board. So, instead of saving a bunch of money on hand-built hardware as it used to, it actually costs more to offer kits than it does fully assembled boards. The technical support costs for kits is pretty high.

Re:Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45262945)

Many radios and test equipment used to be available in kit form too. But that has gone away since the advent of surface mount technology. Most Amateurs don't have the equipment, patience or eyesight to do SMT at home.

Also with the advent of flipchip BGA, manual assembly of SMT boards is not even possible. There's no pins to solder, and the pads which are under the chip have to be positioned to 0.1mm or finer accuracy. Then the board is carried along a conveyor and baked in a big IR oven resembling a pizza oven. And to inspect whether the part has been placed correctly, visual inspection is no good, you have to use xray radiography.

Reworking the board is fun too, you need special IR soldering tools, and a micropositioner to deposit the liquid solder and replace the chips after they are removed.

Re:Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45285753)

Fake expert alert!

1. Small BGA parts do not need to be ultra precisely positioned. So long as the position error is small enough that no balls bridge two pads, solder surface tension during reflow will automatically pull the part into precise alignment with the pads. (PCB pad size is important to assure best results, but data sheets often include a manufacturer-recommended pad design.) The only requirement for sub-millimeter accuracy is when you're dealing with ultra fine pitch BGAs (e.g. 1mm or 0.8mm between pad centers). Those are hard to assemble, but also less likely to be seen in hobbyist level projects since needing that many pins and that fine a pitch generally implies a 6+ layer PCB just to escape the pins from the BGA and provide proper power planes.

2. Hobbyists can (and have) soldered BGA parts using humble toaster ovens for IR reflow. Is it as well controlled as commercial gear? Nope. Can it do all right, particularly for small BGA parts? Yup!

3. You don't need a "micropositioner" (whatever that is) to deposit liquid solder, you can make (or have made for you, there are services which do it for hobbyist friendly prices) a stencil. You lay the stencil on top of the board and then squeegee solder paste over it to deposit solder on pads.

4. X-Ray inspection is only necessary in a production environment. Even there it is seldom used for 100% inspection, it's more to help trace process failures back to root causes. You do not need it for hobbyist purposes.

Yes, it's hard to do BGA rework as a hobbyist, but no, it's not as impossible as fake experts think it is.

Re:Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45264203)

Don't forget Adafruit!!!! (www.adafruit.com)

I've known Ladyada for years, humans can't be much cooler.

Re:Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (2)

Bengie (1121981) | about 9 months ago | (#45262761)

Imagine releasing a CPU manual that explains all of the transistors and quantum physics math behind their layouts. FPGAs and stuff you can document, but advanced electronics requires some real math and physics backgrounds.

Re:Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (2)

hairyfeet (841228) | about 9 months ago | (#45263249)

The problem is gonna be the patents, especially for mobile GPUs. Anybody who has looked into that stuff can tell you pretty much any way to make a screen render has a patent or hundred and they are all held by a handful of players who sure as hell don't want you playing in their sandbox. Wireless is just as bad, with pretty much every way to send a signal patented up the wazoo.

So while you might pull this off in countries without the IP bullshit but in the corporate states of America its not likely.

Different era. (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45261979)

Back then computers were just for us geeks.So of course they'd include schematics.

Today, computing is an appliance (thanks St. Jobs!) and a prestige/luxury item.

Ardino and Rasberry fill thos eniches now.

Re:Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45262009)

The PC? The full assembly source to the IBM PC BIOS was in the Technical Reference Manual.

Re:Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45262401)

And I have the service manuals for the Mac 128K/512Ke/Plus

However I am wondering how many "hobbyists" have the ability to work on multilayer boards, re solder BGAs etc etc etc.

Arduino etc are at the level of the old development boards, they are not "NEW", they are just current implementation.
Hell I have a UK101 which was a kit set project version of the Ohio Challenger 1.

God I wish young people would bother to find out about the 70's and 80's which were probably the most interesting years for computers,
hundreds of different manufacturers, probably the same number of OS's (No, hundreds of different flavours of linux are NOT the something)

Re:Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45262513)

And I have the service manuals for the Mac 128K/512Ke/Plus

However I am wondering how many "hobbyists" have the ability to work on multilayer boards, re solder BGAs etc etc etc.

You'd be surprised. There are plenty of "serious" manufacturing companies that are shit scared of BGAs and avoid them like the plague and there are loads of hobbyists that solders them with modified hair-dryers / toasters / whatever that emits heat.

I guess the difference is the scale. Half of them not working after re-soldering is not a big problem if you only need one or two functional. If you are producing thousands it starts to become an issue.

Re:Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (1)

rickb928 (945187) | about 9 months ago | (#45262999)

And here I am pretty proud of having the SMs and PMs for Selectrics, Mag Cards, Displaywriters, and IBM Electronics. I may never actually fix another one. Darn.

Re:Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45263097)

I work for a contract SMT manufacturing company.

We are not shit scared of BGAs, what we are shit scared of is QFP packages. We will not accept assembly jobs with BGA parts we can't place (the pad pitch is too small), as reworking them is a pain, but in terms of yield, BGA is much better than QFP, the reason being that for a similar number of contacts, the pitch of a BGA is much larger than a QFP because the BGA can spread them out over the package area, where-as the QFP has to have them at fine pitch along the four edges.

The downside to BGA is that you have to either rely on JTAG scan testing to verify placement or radiography, whereas QFP and other legged SMT parts can be inspected with automatic optical inspection (visible light AOI). The difference in technology is only wavelength and cost, but the cost difference is huge. Once you have xray automatic optical inspection (XAOI), then the cost is sunk, and it practically costs the same as VAOI.

What is really bad is PTH (pin-through-hole) assembly, as that has to be done by hand, with people picking up the components and stuffing them through the holes. We have hand tools for that, so it's not as slow/cumbersome as doing it by hand at home, but it's still at least 100x slower than SMT.

Our SMT machines cost about $250~$500/hour to run, about half in energy and half in capex. I used to quip that if you could place 1000 components a minute with 99.99% accuracy*, we would pay you as much to do the job of the machine. You also have to visually inspect every component you place to make sure it's not cracked or missing legs or pads with 99.9% accuracy.

* yes, drop/misplace rates were this bad on one or two of our machines, though I'm not sure what percentage of that is faulty parts being dropped intentionally.

Re:Hey look, it's Commodore and company! (2)

mirix (1649853) | about 9 months ago | (#45263705)

IBM released schematics for PC, as well. There is a difference between releasing schematics, and 'open hardware'!

A circuit could be patented, the firmware (and source) may not be supplied or is otherwise encumbered, board layouts not supplied, etc. OSHW projects usually have all of this... everything you need to make it, unencumbered from any restrictive licensing.

Since the PC schematics were readily available, all the clones had to do was make a functionally identical BIOS (as the firmware was copyrighted) and (physically) layout their own motherboards. The circuit can be a copy of the schematic verbatim, and the bulk of it has to be. Only one place you can stick ram to an 8088. Peripheral addresses can't vary, and implementation can't vary much without killing software compatibility, so they all have the same (or code compatible) timers at the same address, etc. It's why the first serial port is always at 0x3F8... nothing special about the address, except IBM used it, and everyone did the same to maintain compatibility.

Nothing really new here ... (1)

perpenso (1613749) | about 9 months ago | (#45261851)

Nothing really new here, other than re-labeling a decades old practice as open source. Schematics and source coming with a computer or board is nothing new. Sometimes these were finished products where it was left to 3rd parties to do additional hardware and software. Sometimes these were reference designs that were created with the intention of being a foundation for further development by 3rd parties.

Such things are good, but lets not pretend this is something new.

Re:Nothing really new here ... (3, Interesting)

NewWorldDan (899800) | about 9 months ago | (#45261919)

Yep. Many years ago, I was trying to fix a TV from the 70s. Full schematic glued to the inside of the set.

And to a certain extent, hardware has always been open source anyway. A motivated engineer can remove and identify components one by one and follow the wire traces on the circuit board. It's easier to reverse engineer a circuit board than a piece of software. Still, it's a lot easier if they give you the schematic up front. So I'd like to give a big shout out to SparkFun (www.sparkfun.com) electronics, who have made my life a lot easier.

Re:Nothing really new here ... (1)

Gadget_Guy (627405) | about 9 months ago | (#45262345)

Many years ago, I was trying to fix a TV from the 70s. Full schematic glued to the inside of the set.

Same here, but with a radio from the 30s or 40s. I guess the difference is that those devices didn't require a code listing for the firmware. A simple circuit diagram wouldn't be that useful these days.

Also, in the past if a device broke then you would have it repaired. They were made to last. These days you just throw it away and get a new one.

Re:Nothing really new here ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45262073)

Meh. Pretty much the entire open source movement is a rip off of old practices. It's just now they have a mascot and a standard set of licenses to rally around. And yet every n00b thinks he's riding a new frontier...
 
Oh, and it use to be better when people just released stuff without all the licensing crap.

Re:Nothing really new here ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45262213)

Oh, and it use to be better when people just released stuff without all the licensing crap.

Releasing without all the "licensing crap" is precisely how we got to the point where openness and freedom are so rare that it feels new again. The only way to marginally delay greed is to play by its rules, or at least use its rules to force it to play by yours.

Re:Nothing really new here ... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45262465)

Releasing without all the "licensing crap" is precisely how we got to the point where openness and freedom are so rare that it feels new again.
 
Sorry but this is catagorically untrue. Innovation that is down outside the bounds of license falls into prior art. It's that simple. You don't even need creative commons licensing it's so simple.

Re:Nothing really new here ... (1)

jedidiah (1196) | about 9 months ago | (#45262517)

That ignores the fact that RMS produced his license as a practical matter to quiet the cries of his contributors. Detractors like to paint RMS as some sort of communist/anarchist crusader but his license was really about preventing abuse and keeping order.

The CC licenses are just an extension of that.

Not everyone will play nice and you need a mechanism to deal with those people.

In the footsteps of Arduino (4, Insightful)

giampy (592646) | about 9 months ago | (#45261941)

If these companies are trying to occupy the same marketplace as the Arduino, i think it's too late. Otherwise it's definitely a good move.

In any case IMO what really allowed the Arduino to take off was not much the fact that it was open source, but rather the fact that it had readable documentation, which anyone could actually follow and make things work.

I am still amazed at the extent to which, to this day, the documentation for many Arduino-wannabe boards (e.g TI MSP 430, Chipkit 32, and others) really sucks.

Re:In the footsteps of Arduino (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45262141)

In any case IMO what really allowed the Arduino to take off was not much the fact that it was open source, but rather the fact that it had readable documentation, which anyone could actually follow and make things work.

Very good point.

Re:In the footsteps of Arduino (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45262187)

I think size and price and first to market had a bit more to do with it. Take for example the defacto replacement for that board that people use now to tinker with. The RasberryPI. 40-60 bucks for a full out computer (case and all depending on where you buy it). Not bad. The Arduino was good for its time dont get me wrong. But boards like the PI are where it is at now. The cost of the arduino is nearly 4x what a PI is.

If someone can hit 10-20 bucks for a full out computer that is slightly better than the PI you will see the PI dusted.

Also do not get me wrong good docs are a god send. But they are not a showstopper.

Re:In the footsteps of Arduino (1)

ArcadeMan (2766669) | about 9 months ago | (#45262301)

You can take an Arduino schematic and run it on a 28-pin DIP, 5$USD ATmega328P on a single-sided PCB you make yourself at home or even a protoboard. I don't see most hobbyists doing that with anything related to the Raspberry Pi.

Re:In the footsteps of Arduino (1)

Kerstyun (832278) | about 9 months ago | (#45263105)

Nope i can't. Yuor mite as well be talcing Greak to me and I amn't Greak..

Re:In the footsteps of Arduino (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45280491)

the GPIO on the RPi is not as useful as what is available on other microcontrollers.

It is ONLY 3.3v, doesn't do analogue input.

It is very limiting.

Re:In the footsteps of Arduino (1)

iamwahoo2 (594922) | about 9 months ago | (#45262499)

4X the cost? That seems rather high. I have purchased my last Arduino in the $20 range and if you are really cheap you can get the knockoffs on ebay for a lot less. The RasPi and Arduino were never meant to do the same things. Case in point, I have witnessed student teams tackle the same problem with real time sensing using the Pi and the Arduino. The Pi team ran a full linux distro and built their applications using python. The Arduino team used the Arduino. The systems ran on battery power. As you can imagine, the Arduino design was much more efficient and was actually developed just as quickly. On the other hand, I would not use an Arduino as a network router, fileserver, or media player.

In my opinion, the next cool thing for the electronics hobbyist is not in the ever increasing push for more FLASH/RAM and smaller size, but in improved, easy to implement, and secure connectivity. Something like pinocc.io

Re:In the footsteps of Arduino (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45262639)

Arduino and Pi are not in the same market space. It sounds like you're a hobbiest who doesn't understand them very well.
 
  The cost of the arduino is nearly 4x what a PI is.
 
The cheapest starter kit I seen with a quick search was just over 60 without a keyboard or mouse. I wouldn't exactly call that a "full out computer." By the same token an Arduino Uno can be gotten for under 25.
 
  If someone can hit 10-20 bucks for a full out computer that is slightly better than the PI you will see the PI dusted.
 
Wow. If you make something better at half the price people will buy it? That's amazing. You must have a MBA to have such insight into the consumer market.

Re:In the footsteps of Arduino (3, Insightful)

melikamp (631205) | about 9 months ago | (#45262997)

Indeed, "open-source hardware" just sounds stupid, if only because hardware doesn't have what programmers call "source". What we need is free hardware: the one with 4 freedoms RMS keeps talking about. Free hardware implies free and readable specs and documentation, since that's the only way to assure that users can use it and study it. It also implies a free and readable description of the manufacturing process, so that anyone skilled in the trade can make exact or modified copies.

Re:In the footsteps of Arduino (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45286039)

Indeed, "open-source hardware" just sounds stupid, if only because hardware doesn't have what programmers call "source".

Sure it does -- most of the logic in every chip in your computer started out as Verilog or VHDL code. These are hardware description languages which use syntax superficially similar to C (Verilog) or Ada (VHDL). (Note; Ada syntax is much closer to VHDL than C is to Verilog.) These languages operate on principles which are confusing to most software engineers. Despite incorporating what looks like sequential execution, they're radically parallel functional languages which require a fundamentally different mindset, To make a chip from source, you run it through a "synthesizer", analagous to a compiler: it translates high level language source to a list of logic gates and the nets connecting them (a netlist). Unlike a compiler, there's more work to do afterwards; there's a lot of steps required to make a set of physical masks for manufacturing from the netlist, and usually a lot more manual low level work involved than is common in software (that is, there's more of the moral equivalent to hacking in assembly and even machine code). But it's still fundamentally a process of transforming high level source code to something much lower level.

Free hardware implies free and readable specs and documentation, since that's the only way to assure that users can use it and study it. It also implies a free and readable description of the manufacturing process, so that anyone skilled in the trade can make exact or modified copies.

The key difference between software and hardware (at the chip level) is that the startup costs for building a new company and fab capable of building exact or modified copies of chips from hardware source code is somewhere around tens of billions of dollars, and even the incremental cost for performing one equivalent of the modify/compile/test cycle familiar to software developers often runs into the millions at modern process nodes. (And good luck getting any of the incumbent manufacturers to provide you a free and readable description of their manufacturing processes. The general principles are all known and shared to some extent in the scientific literature, but they aren't going to give away their exact processes, not when that much is at stake.)

Re:In the footsteps of Arduino (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45263217)

The documentation for the TI MSP430 is great, what are you talking about. Also the MSP430 is much cheaper than AVRs in production quantities, and it's lower power and 16-bit, which helps for lots of codes. I used one in >10k unit quantities for a battery and power control IC in an embedded Linux board I worked on. Also the MSP430 has JTAG boundary scanning, which I haven't seen on any AVR chips.

I'll grant you one thing, the MSP430 JTAG debug protocol is not documented (the boundary scan is standard JTAG like every other chip), where-as the AVR does not have a debug protocol or JTAG, you have to replace the chip with an emulator. Have fun soldering all those wires from your emulator to your application board!

I have done a lot of AVR designs before I was brought in on this project, and I was surprised how much of a time saving having in-system emulation and debug makes to a project.

Re:In the footsteps of Arduino (1)

terryk29 (2756467) | about 9 months ago | (#45265897)

...where-as the AVR does not have a debug protocol or JTAG, you have to replace the chip with an emulator. Have fun soldering all those wires from your emulator to your application board!

What about debugWire? Not full-blown JTAG, but it is an in-circuit debugging interface (uses the RESET pin). I believe it's now on all but the simplest of devices.

Re:In the footsteps of Arduino (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#45274303)

Well, that wasn't a thing when I did the MSP design.

Still, complete JTAG boundary scanning is a DFM requirement for many manufacturers today. You drop JTAG functional verification and your test costs sky-rocket.

Natural Progression (1)

justcauseisjustthat (1150803) | about 9 months ago | (#45262133)

It's a natural step, but probably more so a financial step. If a company can take an open piece of hardware and use it to save money, win, win.

This is about products, not components (3, Interesting)

MasterOfGoingFaster (922862) | about 9 months ago | (#45262161)

What's new here is the trend. Companies saw the RepRap project spawn a bunch of companies with a lot of compatibility from the start. Non-RepRap companies are seeing this as a threat to the investment they made using traditional methods (closed design, proprietary supplies and software).

Business people understand the IBM PC clone model. You had a market leader that everyone copied. The old-school thinking was they failed to protect their intellectual property, and lost market share to competitors who copied their design. In other words, they believe IBM could have kept nearly all the marked had they done a better job of keeping it closed, and bought Microsoft while they could.

RepRap and projects like it have upended that thinking. Arduino is seen as a component, not a product, by these people. But 3D printing is getting a lot of press, and business people are starting to take notice. When you create a 10 year plan, and can achieve a huge reduction in R&D spending, along with a reduction of risk, they take notice.

One of the concerns is the believe the a mature market only has room for two main competitors. That means you have a lot of losers. An open source machine makes it much more likely that your company will end up as one of the two majors, and that is a huge reduction of risk. This is becoming a hot topic among many executives. Many are somewhat scared and unsure what to do - if anything.

Re:This is about products, not components (1)

Junta (36770) | about 9 months ago | (#45264955)

The old-school thinking was they failed to protect their intellectual property, and lost market share to competitors who copied their design

I don't think anyone significant believed that. Even IBM had long acknowledged that they thought the PC clones were the reason for the amount of volume they got. They knew long ago that thanks to that they got a decent chunk of a massive market instead of 100% of a pathetic small market (also, getting a decent chunk of change from all the clones that had to license a lot of patents, it's not like IBM let them 'steal', they licensed the relevant patents). IBM didn't plan that in the beginning, but they realized relatively early on that is was a blessing rather than a curse.

Re:This is about products, not components (1)

MasterOfGoingFaster (922862) | about 9 months ago | (#45268957)

I don't disagree. I'm not talking about IBM themselves, but executives outside the IT industry who don't understand the nuances of the PC market, and the whole concept of the FOSS movement. Those folks think Apple is doing it right with a closed garden, and were surprised that Android phones outsold Apple, Nokia and Microsoft.

My dad can't understand why people would buy a phone from that hippy (Jobs @ Apple), when you can get a phone from solid companies like Nokia and Microsoft. He thinks Google can't keep giving stuff away for free and it's all some huge con game - it just has to be.

The real issue is he is having a hard time recognizing the world has changed, and he needs to reevaluate his beliefs. Of course, he still thinks Japan copies everything from us and their cars are poor quality.

Business People: a hard time focussing on mone (2)

scamper_22 (1073470) | about 9 months ago | (#45262423)

It's a common stereotype that the problem with business people is that all they care about is money.

If only that was the case.

The reality is we all tend to have some model of how things should be paid for and what makes our company different from another.

But, we always need to step back and look at it objectively.

Open Source is not some enemy of revenue on its own.
The old telecom companies (Bells, ATTs...) used to have all kinds of open source products. They knew their revenue was from having a monopoly position over communication.

This is very similar to Google today. They saw that they could be very friendly to open source as their revenue model was service/ad based. I'm sure there are bean counters at Google, but they're not simplistic bean counters who simply say people are using X amount of Google service, so they need to pay Y dollars.

I don't quite know the model for hardware companies. But perhaps just name recognition is enough. Sure with open hardware, anyone could make a copy, but most people, me included, would still pay for the name, to ensure it is done 'right'. I know I could buy a $20 router, but I end up with the Cisco/LinkSys/DLink...
Perhaps enough of a market develops that large companies start paying to support projects while reaping the manufacturing benefits.

I always see the negatives....... (2)

Dan Askme (2895283) | about 9 months ago | (#45262995)

Open Source Company/Business:
- Get others to do your work for you, claim glory.
- Promote the product for free, by getting others to do it for you.
- Create a license that controls the sale of all products that use the original source.
- No responsibility or legal worries for the company, blame the other guy.

All i see is the company benefiting, mostly?

I'am all for open source. But when a business comes into it, is it "really" open source?

These damned kids ... (1)

PPH (736903) | about 9 months ago | (#45263983)

.... are always so eager to help with my airplane design. But when it comes time to do the FAA certification paperwork, they are nowhere to be found.

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