Open Source Hardware is On the Way

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Joi Ito started last fall as the new director of the MIT Media Lab. This research organization explores how technology is changing communication and culture, often by building dazzling hardware and software prototypes.

Among some of the lab's best-known spin-offs: early Internet personalization start-up Firefly Networks, e-book display maker E Ink, and Cambridge game developer Harmonix Music Systems.

Recently, Ito gave one of his first talks to the Boston tech community at the British Consulate in Kendall Square. Hspoke about several topics including Silicon Valley's weaknesses, open technologies, global opportunities, and whether the lab is "selling itself too cheap."

Some Quick Thoughts from Ito on Several Tech Companies:

1. Apple: One of the few remaining companies surviving as a closed ecosystem.
2. Amazon: One of the few companies doing what they originally set out to do.
3. HP: I'm not sure, but lots of smart people.
4. LinkedIn: Interesting monopoly, with one of the few ethical people I know [executive chairman Reid Hoffman] in control.
5. Twitter: Tons of potential, but interested where it's going.
6. Oracle: Do people still use Oracle?
7. Stanford: We need to learn a lot from Stanford.
8. MIT: Tons of potential. Needs a kick in the butt.


Open Source Hardware is Coming

According to Ito, Open-source hardware is on its way and it will bring with it a new era of innovation. The emergence of freely available hardware designs and near-free components will start the same sort of technology innovation that open-source software kicked off a decade or so ago, according to Ito.

“If you want to build a video camera, some day you’ll be able to find all the standard parts, the designs online for free and then you’ll only design the pieces of the product that interest you,” Ito said.

Developers can focus their attention on the more valuable hardware they build atop that standard base,  just as software developers write specialized software that runs on Linux and open-source middleware instead of proprietary Unix or Windows operating systems.

The industry is starting to talk open-source hardware in the context of the Open Compute Foundation which focuses on data center servers.

Ito used the founding of Google as an example of the creativity open-source software enabled.  If Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page started out without open source, they would have had to make large capital investment on operating systems and other commercial software to do what they did, he said. But, because of open source, “all they had to do is write a little software and connect it to university network", he said.

The advent of open-source software decimated start-up costs of software companies and that, in turn, sparked an “explosion of innovation in the valley because you could try anything,” he said.

In the same manner, the adoption of the open source model will reduce costs out of hardware design because companies won’t have to devote as much capital to equipment. They could download designs to build them themselves or get a contract manufacturer to build them. The cost savings will push hardware innovation “into smaller companies, into academic labs and dorm rooms,”  Ito said.

Major advances in 3-D printing technology will also make it easier and less expensive for smaller companies to create physical prototypes of their designs. “The idea of printing gadgets is not as far away as you think,” Ito said.

According to Ito, small companies are where innovation thrives.

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