You've heard of open source software. But what about open source hardware? Here's an overview of what open source hardware is, what the challenges are and why open hardware is poised to grow in importance as the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to boom.

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

July 19, 2016

4 Min Read
Open Source Hardware: What It Means and Why It Matters

You've heard of open source software. But what about open source hardware? Here's an overview of what open source hardware is, what the challenges are and why open hardware is poised to grow in importance as the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to boom.

Defining Open Source Hardware

Simply put, open source hardware is a term that refers to any type of device whose hardware specifications are fully documented or otherwise available.

That's important for several reasons. First, it maximizes the ability of third-party programmers and partners to work with a given device. In most cases hardware manufacturers provide only a basic level of programmability by releasing software development kits (SDKs) or limited documentation about hardware specifications. Sometimes additional hardware information is available through partner programs. But with open source hardware, all information is freely available to the public.

Another reason why hardware openness matters is that it lets users know exactly what their hardware does. If you've ever read stories about webcams spying on users or microphones listening in without their permission, you appreciate the value of being able to know everything your hardware is capable of doing (and how it can be activated), as opposed to knowing only what the company you buy it from reveals.

Open hardware has the benefit of being more extensible, too. For most people this matters with hardware even less than it does with software. But for the hardcore geeks out there who want to be able to customize to infinity, documentation about how hardware works is crucial. It makes it much easier to tweak a device by cutting wires, plugging in additional components and so on.

Open Source Hardware Origins

If the benefits of open hardware sound a lot like the ones you get from open source software, it's because they are. And the relationship between open hardware and open source software is not incidental.

As a conscious movement, open hardware dates to the late 1990s, when Bruce Perens announced an open hardware certification program that had the backing of a number of industry partners (most of them were companies that sold Linux hardware, software or support services). Less than a year later, Perens was also one of the figures who helped launch the open source software movement properly defined.

Yet in practice, open hardware goes back much further. Like open source code, open hardware specifications were the default during the first decades of computing. At that time, when many programs were written in assembly code and software was much less portable than it is today, intricate knowledge of hardware was essential for writing software. That meant that companies that manufactured hardware were much more forthcoming than they generally are today with hardware documentation.

The shift toward closed-source software starting in the early 1980s, combined with the standardization of basic hardware platforms like the IBM PC and the adoption of cross-platform programming languages such as C, made hardware specifications less important. For the most part, programmers no longer needed to know lots of details about hardware specifications in order to write code for a particular platform. As long as you wrote for the PC, your code would run on most computers. And when hardware-specific software was required, companies could release it in closed-source form, which did not require them to give away details about the hardware.

Why Open Hardware Matters Today

Closed hardware remained the norm as the PC age gave way to the era of mobile devices and the cloud. For the most part, only tinkerers and DIYers had reason to wish hardware were more open. For ordinary users, open hardware has not traditionally offered many advantages.

But open hardware is poised to assume more importance going forward. This is due in part to the influence of open source software, which has now become predominant. As organizations come to expect all software source code to be open in order to maximize interoperability, it's only natural for them to think the same way about hardware.

Open hardware will also matter on the IoT, for two main reasons. The first involves security and privacy. While worries about snooping webcams on PCs may be overblown, demands for privacy assurances will reach new magnitudes when IoT devices surround consumers and collect all sorts of personal information. Companies that build IoT solutions based on open hardware will be able to make privacy promises that others can't.

Open hardware will also help to drive IoT adoption by creating a foundation for building low-cost, portable IoT solutions. In other words, open hardware platforms, like Arduino, will do for IoT what open source software platforms, like Linux and Apache, did for the Web by providing a convenient, accessible, cost-efficient basis on which to deploy products in a new ecosystem.

Last but not least, the software-defined revolution is likely to increase demand for open source hardware. That's because software-defined solutions abstract functions like networking and storage infrastructure from the underlying devices, making hardware itself less valuable. Organizations will have no need for expensive, proprietary network switches or storage arrays when such hardware cannot do anything that can't be done in software alone.

Against this backdrop, open hardware solutions will become more valuable not only because they are likely to be inexpensive, but also because open specifications maximize the ability of programmers to take advantage of hardware features when optimizing software-defined solutions.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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