September 22, 2011 AT 12:07 am

Why the Best Days of Open Hardware are Yet to Come

One of my favorite talks at the Summit this year was by Bunnie Huang, who is the lead engineer of the Chumby, among many other accomplishments. He put forth the idea that as the increase in tech capabilities slows (as the doubling window for Moore’s law increases to 24 or 36 months), smaller developers will stand a better chance of creating innovative products which can succeed in the marketplace. He’s put all this together into an equally excellent blog post:

Currently, open hardware is a niche industry. In this post, I highlight the trends that have caused the hardware industry to favor large, closed businesses at the expense of small or individual innovators. However, looking 20-30 years into the future, I see a fundamental shift in trends that can tilt the balance of power to favor innovation over scale.

In the beginning, hardware was open. Early consumer electronic products, such as vacuum tube radios, often shipped with user manuals that contained full schematics, a list of replacement parts, and instructions for service. In the 80’s, computers often shipped with schematics. For example, the Apple II shipped with a reference manual that included a full schematic of the mainboard, an artifact that I credit as strongly influencing me to get into hardware. However, contemporary user manuals lack such depth of information; the most complex diagram in a recent Mac Pro user instructs on how to sit at the computer: “thighs slightly lifted”, “shoulders relaxed”, etc.

What happened? Did electronics just get too hard and complex? On the contrary, improving electronics got too easy: the pace of Moore’s Law has been too much for small-scale innovators to keep up.

I urge you to read the whole thing, because it is utterly compelling, and contains one of best sentiments ever:

Personally, I’m looking forward to the return of artisan engineering, where elegance, optimization and balance are valued over feature creep, and where I can use the same tool for a decade and not be viewed as an anachronism.

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2 Comments

  1. I think the real reason that computers (and many other consumer devices) no longer have schematic diagrams in the user manual is because they would be meaningless. The Apple II schematic was something you could follow, each part was small enough in scope to understand it’s function and the number of interconnections between parts was small.

    A schematic of a compute today would be meaningless. Each chip is a super-vvlsi blob with hundreds of connections to other similar chips. The schematic is a lot of large blocks on a plate of spaghetti wiring. The schematic does show how the bits are connected, but the actual function is hard to see.

    Smaller products can still lend themselves to having a schematic that the average consumer could understand, but even things like portable radios these days consist of one or two major chips connected to a few common parts. Nothing seems to be built of discrete parts anymore. The probability of fixing most of these things yourself is also low, assuming you could find the custom parts used (house numbered IC’s, etc).

  2. Really great read … thanks for pointing that out.

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