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How open hardware can change the field of electronic design

20 Dec 2013  | Javier D. Garcia-Lasheras

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The current business model for most commercial hardware design companies is to keep the design's details secret. This might maximise the margins for the company, but it has no advantage for its customers.

The people behind the OHR believe that a business model based on companies designing in a fully open environment and getting paid for it is perfectly feasible. They also believe it will result in better products and give the customers the opportunity to help improve and debug them more effectively. By using this open-and-commercial hardware approach, vendor-locked situations are avoided, allowing companies to be selected on the basis of technical excellence, good support, and good prices. Furthermore, this business paradigm opens the market door to small, local companies that would be systematically rejected otherwise.

To cope with the special legal issues related to open hardware that are not properly covered by well-established open software licences, the CERN knowledge transfer group developed the CERN Open Hardware Licence (OHL). The first version was released in 2011. Using this clear and concise licence, anyone can access the design documentation and is free to study, modify, manufacture, and share the OHL-covered hardware.

Beyond the heated open hardware business model debate, the OHR has proven the feasibility of its open-and-commercial vision. At the time of this writing, more than 100 projects are hosted by the repository, which is promoted by 11 research institutes around the world: CERN, Soleil, GSI, Brazillian Light Source, University of Bristol, Warsaw University of Technology, University of Zurich, University of Pavia, Rockefeller University, University of Cape Town, and Heidelberg University. Additionally, 16 commercial companies are developing, producing, and/or testing open hardware products hosted there.

In future blogs, I'll introduce some of the projects being hosted by the OHR. As part of this, I'll try to show how open hardware, software, and gateware are already helping to expand the frontiers of our knowledge, from the basic constituents of matter to the magnificent structure of our universe. In the meantime, how do you feel about open hardware? Are you as convinced as I am of the potential of this paradigm for changing our world?

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