Open-source ethos moves from code to wider world

Rapid prototyping and dispersed implementation are driving hardware development

Jay Parikh, vice president for connectivity at Facebook: “The entire world is going to accelerate its technology development.” Photograph: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Jay Parikh, vice president for connectivity at Facebook: “The entire world is going to accelerate its technology development.” Photograph: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

 

Facebook showed plans last week for drone aircraft that can beam lasers conveying high-speed data to remote parts of the world.

As powerful as that sounds, the company already has something that could be even more potent: a huge sharing of its once-proprietary information, the kind of thing that would bring a traditional Silicon Valley patent lawyer to tears.

Facebook is not alone. Technology for big computers, electric cars and high-tech microcontrollers to operate things like power tools and engines is now given away.

These ideas used to be valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. To the new generation of technologists, however, moving projects and data fast overrides the value of making everything in secret.

“You now don’t need a lot of people or a lot of capital to manufacture a prototype,” said Jay Parikh, vice president for connectivity at Facebook. “The entire world is going to accelerate its technology development.”

Facebook has already shared designs for data storage, computer servers and rack designs, among other hardware, Mr Parikh said, and has seen rapid improvements as a result.

Rather than just building and testing a handful of designs, Facebook gets to see dozens of variations that individuals and companies manufacture inexpensively. They often contract with prototype makers over marketplaces like the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, or they may even use three-dimensional printers.

It is too early to say if Facebook’s drone technology will be shared, but Mr. Parikh said his company would donate tech ideas for “telecommunications carriers, to make them reach more people.”

Swapping ideas

Sun Microsystems

Hardware was considered a tougher and more expensive business to enter, however, until a few years ago. PCH International, a San Francisco company, has in the last 18 months made more than 1,000 prototypes for both big companies and small start-ups. It now makes 20 to 40 3-D printed objects a day and over 50 working prototypes a week.

Along with cheap prototyping, the global explosion of cellphones changed things. A semiconductor maker turning out 100 million chips or sensors for a phone does not spend much more producing an additional million. That abundance helped create the hobbyist drone industry and is one reason robotics is hot again.

Enormous global connectivity also makes it possible for developers of all kinds to find one another and share ideas, even large video and schematics files.

In 2006, about 18,000 people attended the first Maker Faire, where participants showed off what they were making in their sheds, held in the San Francisco Bay Area. Last year 750,000 people attended 131 such fairs around the world.

“The Arduino microcontroller, drones, 3-D printers, the Raspberry Pi – people share designs and information on all these things,” said Dale Dougherty, creator of the Maker Faire and the chief executive of Make Media. “A lot of companies are adopting this mind-set too.”

While it is not strictly open source, the Raspberry Pi, a computer costing as little as $30, uses Linux and has a large community of developers who share information.

When companies do make hardware free, Mr. Dougherty said, it is not usually altruistic. “It can create competition for your enemy without spending money on a new product,” he said. He noted that IBM went into open-source software in the 1990s, and Microsoft suffered.

Sometimes companies want to kick-start business. Facebook’s open designs have enabled commercial relationships that lower its supply costs as well as speed innovation.

In another stunning example, in June, Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of Tesla Motors, said he was giving away all his electric car company’s patents, “in the spirit of the open-source movement.”

“Technology leadership is not defined by patents,” Mr. Musk wrote, “but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers.”

Patents

Alexis Georgeson

By releasing the patents, she said, Tesla hoped to spur consumer acceptance and even create a network of supporting businesses, like car charging stations and mechanics. That would also help Tesla’s sales.

Does this mean the birth of a new world where everything is free and all ideas are open? No. Facebook will not disclose things like its business plans, or much of how its ad technology uses artificial intelligence. And there are things it will patent.

“There are competing goals here, protecting and sharing,” said Mr Dougherty. “You have to figure out where you are in a business and what you want to own.” – Copyright The New York Times 2015

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