Open Source Hardware: Birth Of A Long Tail Market?

Wednesday Sep 19th 2007 by Matt Hartley
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What if the creation of computer hardware became as individualized – as free from corporate control – as open source software? Plus: a sci-fi futurist scenario in which this happens.

With open source software becoming a household name, another open source movement that may one day see some fanfare is already taking shape. Open source hardware, which I once thought to be little more than a pipe dream left over from a bygone era, is proving to be a dream that it is very much alive and growing.

MAKE Magazine

As an example of this trend, MAKE magazine has managed to regenerate a previously static culture of do-it-yourselfers at a feverish pace.

By sharing simple-to-follow schematics and how-tos on a variety of user-created projects, people from all over the world have discovered that open source, as a concept, goes a lot deeper than just software development. These open-minded individuals have learned that open source hardware is also a viable idea that could begin to generate an industry all its own.

Open Ideas to Open Source: Hacking Hardware

One of the most daring developments within open source hardware world is start-up companies that provide base-level hardware devices, complete with schematics to hack or alter them to meet users' needs.

An example is Chumby, the friendly household Internet appliance. Chumby is a concept based on the belief that some people out there would be thrilled to have access to the Internet without the need for more traditional devices. Chumby provides the end user a unique means of accessing online maps, tracking auctions – nearly anything you might want from the Internet. For about $200, this widget-using Net appliance provides you with all the Internet you’d ever want, even from the strangest locations.

What makes Chumby different from any other Internet appliance running created widgets is that it allows users themselves to create widgets to further extend Chumby's functionality. Once Chumby has been connected to a LAN, it uses a user-defined 'widget playlist' as an interactive view screen. It’s something like you might find with Apple's Dashboard feature in OS X, but on a less powerful computing appliance.

Going deeper still into the geekier side of open source hardware brings us to the Daisy MP3 project, which is supported by MAKE.

Unlike the more consumer-friendly Chumby, Daisy opens itself up to new revenue possibilities by allowing the builder the opportunity to build the device into a customized appliance. Even though this is not likely the goal of the project itself, it does present the possibility of customized MP3 players for a variety of enterprise applications. Entrepreneurs would likely start out by targeting industries that need access to a low cost, custom-built music player than can be implemented to users’ specs.

Using open source thinking at the base of open source hardware

Buglabs, which combines community electronics with a working business model, presents what could be the future of open source hardware for the masses.

The modular device offered by Buglabs is, at its core, a full-featured Linux computer known appropriately enough as a 'BUG'. Complete with all the abilities of a PC, the BUG allows budding computing enthusiasts to play hobbyist engineer so they can create a device with their own specifications in mind. A clever idea, considering most consumer products always seem to be lacking that one killer feature. Also a great remedy for those who tend to dream of how they would have built any given device 'better' or differently.

Next page: The "long tail" and open source

Now consider for a moment, what is causally referred to as the “long tail market.” Rather than boring you with a lengthy explanation, allow me to illustrate with a common example of the “long tail” versus the typical “sell what is hot” business model so commonly used today.

Take Blockbuster and Netflix. As a means to generate as much revenue as possible, Blockbuster made it their business to open up as many storefronts as they could in order to rent the most popular blockbuster hits to as many people as possible. They had plenty of the top titles, yet their lesser sought after movies were, at the time, few and far between.

Then came Netflix. They too, had the same blockbuster titles as the brick-and-mortar powerhouse, but offered them without immediate access – Netflix was a mail order outfit. To compensate, Netflix catered to the lesser known DVD titles that only a few individuals would ever care to watch. DVDs features like “The Greatest American Hero,” a TV show from the early 80's, is hardly a blockbuster hit. Yet Netflix believed this gave the customer added value not seen with Blockbuster's mass market movie appeal.

As individuals, each Netflix customer is only selecting a single video and it might not be ordered again by anyone else for weeks, sometimes months. But with thousands of people doing this as well, you have tidal wave affect. And it is this affect that creates what is known as a long tail market.

So how does this long tail market concept relate to open source hardware and Buglabs? Simple: it will likely be a model that they’ll end up following. The mass market aspect to their efforts will be the 'BUG' itself, from which long tail type products can be built off of as each individual wishes.

Perhaps customer No. 1 is looking for a GPS unit that has certain functionality that could only appeal to that person. And customer No. 2 is wanting to build some sort of motion detector that has a customized software base that only meets their personal standards. This is long tail in its truest form and if implemented properly, Buglabs could see the Netflix effect fairly easily.

Learning From the Software Side of the Fence – Understanding Both the Mistakes and Successes

If open source hardware participants such as Bug Labs really examine what has worked and what has failed within the open source software world, a lot of time can be saved along the way.

As Canonical has proven with the Ubuntu Linux project, keeping true to an open source vision does not mean living in a fantasy land filled with good intentions. Canonical proved that you can indeed, build an open source base for your target market, but do so without resorting to becoming a non-profit venture.

Treating new open source hardware projects like the business models that they are is a wise approach. Especially when considering wonderful opportunities you may be providing for future hardware developers. Giving the gift of a self-sustaining business is never 'evil' and even the most devote open source enthusiasts have to appreciate being able to pay the rent while doing something that they love.

Next page: A sci-fi open source scenario

Successful open source projects in all their forms must provide an ecosystem that is not only true to the original vision of the project, but also can provide a venue to keep the developers with the ideas working to create the next great concept. This means a sustainable business model. And when considering the long tail nature of many open source concepts, it only makes sense to ensure that you are working to create an open source project that empowers the success of its creation through the long term value of a long tail marketplace.

Sci-Fi thoughts: Personalized Devices Built by a Robotic Factory in the near future?

What if Buglabs has nailed it? What if they grow to such an extent that money is no object, and the needed technology was readily available in the near future? That is, what if we see the birth of an open source hardware 'ecosystem'? Consider this possible scenario:

• New user logs into the hardware ecosystem prototype building website.
• They upload schematics using their own template so that their computers can relay the needed data off to the robotic factory for assembly.
• During the upload process, needed materials for a given prototype have been charged to the user's credit card or account, expediting the building process.
• Once the on-demand prototype creation is complete, it would be up to the end user to beta test the product as the on-demand factory is not setup for such assistance.
• Via RSS newsfeed, the uploaded schematics are published for all to view and comment on.

Obviously, the entire thing sounds far fetched and the logistical challenge(s) presented are enormous. But think about this: the same thing could be said about the ecosystem I like to call the World Wide Web.

How could something designed for communication provide the stomping grounds for electronic commerce, virtual software applications and of course, a sounding board for new ideas yet to be discovered? Yes, the Web provides users with a means of collaboration. And when there is unrestricted collaboration, nearly anything is possible. Buglabs, the open source hardware movement and other yet-to-be discovered frontiers have the same opportunity here.

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