The open source hardware initiative is very interesting because open source, in most of the cases, means something for free as free lunch without any royalty or earning. This is especially interesting because unlike software, where one usually needs to donate time and effort only, here you need to spend considerable money to bring-up a working prototype. There are several things, however, which make this logic practical:
- Today there is bundle of CAD tools which help to simulate hardware before going to fab. Tools like Altium have everything built-in from PCB design to FPGA design to firmware development. There are also some cheap alternatives available like Diptrace or Eagle, though with a subset of functionality. This reduces risk of repetitive prototyping and saves time and money.
- It is possible that initial effort of design be shared to open source community and let somebody else develop the actual hardware. Like some of the designs on this website which have not been tested by building a working prototype but at least they provide a very good ground for starting a product development from something which is valuable and can save lots of time, especially, for the beginners like young electronic engineers.
- The people who use the open source hardware design to build their gadget are very important because they are the ones who actually debug the hardware. These are typically called application engineers who design for service providers. Their feedback is extremely important. Feedback plays very important role which open source community uses in the improvement of a design. The feedback also helps to get new ideas popped up and hence new designs and expansion in open source base.
- Though the hardware may be free, the components like ICs, capacitors, inductors are never free. The people who manufacture these parts must support the open source hardware initiatives. Infact many companies like Coocox, Adafruit, Sparkfun and alike work on the very same idea. Look at the success of Beagle board; it could not have been possible without the support of TI and Digikey. After all who spent probably hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring down the price of Beagle board with so many hefty features? Coocox site tries to depict the actual open source cycle which is a win-win situation for everyone, the chip manufactures, the open source hardware developer, the hobbyist or application engineer, the solution provider company that hires this application engineer and, not to forget, the consumer or end-user.
Why not the application engineer designs directly from the reference design of chip manufacturer? Basically this is what widely happens and it is happening right from the beginning. But open source hardware has some advantages which this conventional model does not offer. Like the product standardization is lot easier and natural as lots of people use the same design or the derived ones from the same hardware. The end product is more likely to bug free as larger number of people build and test and report the bugs. The end product design life-cycle drastically reduces as the application engineer utilizes pre-tested open source hardware components. The hobbyists and young engineers just entering this field greatly benefit by having lots of free stuff available to play with. And sky is the limit.