What is Open Hardware and can it benefit your Startup?
5 March, 2021 by
What is Open Hardware and can it benefit your Startup?

By Diderik van Wingerden

This story is about two men who have made a bigger impact on IT and innovation than Steve Jobs and Bill Gates combined. These men initiated the development of a piece of software that currently runs on 80 percent of all smartphones sold. Over 90 percent of the biggest websites in the world run on it, and Google has it at the heart of all of their millions of servers.

These men are Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds. They designed the Operating System Linux: (purists would say: GNU/Linux) a software system with such a huge social value that it generated a disruptive innovation model named the ‘Open Source Software’ model (purists would say Free Software, with ‘free’ as in ‘freedom’ not ‘gratis’).

From bits to atoms: enter Open Hardware

Nowadays the impact and value of Open Source Software is undisputed. And the question arises: could this innovation model make the leap from bits to atoms, from ‘virtual’ to physical? And will the same promises of higher quality, lower cost, faster innovation, limits to vendor lock-in, security and privacy by design and transparency hold as everyone is allowed to have a look inside the box?

What is Open Hardware? “Open Hardware is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design.” (source: Open Source Hardware Association)

So Open Hardware depends on the design of the hardware being open. This is why Richard Stallman for example prefers to call it “Free Hardware Design” in his Wired articles on the subject. See for instance this article or this one. Again, free relates to freedom, not price.

Open Hardware is already happening all over the world

Initiatives to develop Open Hardware are popping up all over the world, not only for electronics hardware but for many types of products. Creative and entrepreneurial ‘makers’ are freely sharing their designs and knowledge, but also start-ups and even larger corporations are experimenting with the idea.

A few examples: (1) just a few months ago over 100 makers, designers, engineers and scientists got together for five weeks at POC21 in France to make open-source, sustainable products for a fossil free, zero waste society.

(2) Intel, one of the world’s largest semiconductor chip makers, made the Minnowboard computer and open licensed all design files. But perhaps the best known example is (3) Arduino, creating a huge and active community for electronics learning and prototyping, based on their standardized expandable platform for creating “Internet of Things” and “Connected Devices” solutions.

One of the projects at POC21: emonPi, the Open-Hardware Raspberry Pi-Based Energy Monitor (Image source: www.open-electronics.org).

Another POC21 project: GroWall by Aker, a wall-mounted planter system for growing herbs, flowers or other small plants (Image source: www.aker.me/growall.html).

Can Open Hardware benefit your start-up?

The remaining question is: can Open Hardware be of value to your start-up? If you are using existing hardware products as part of the value proposition, perhaps using open alternatives could boost innovative capacity and prevent a too dependent relationship with your supplier.

If you are building hardware yourself, or having it built for you, looking at open licensing could reap the benefits of being open, especially when your competitive advantage is not in a patented high-tech piece of hardware, but in the services that you build on top.

Diderik van Wingerden is the Chief at Totem, an open collective of engineers, designers, scientists and entrepreneurs creating products for a better world. Currently, Totem has products in the Energy, Health and Education markets. For Totem Open Health the organization received funding from the EU and the initiative is currently one of the 10 finalists of UNICEF Wearables for Good.