The past and future of open hardware July 25, 2022 on Drew DeVault's blog

They say a sucker is born every day, and at least on the day of my birth, that certainly may have been true. I have a bad habit of spending money on open hardware projects that ultimately become vaporware or seriously under-deliver on their expectations. In my ledger are EOMA68, DragonBox Pyra, the Jolla Tablet — which always had significant non-free components — and the Mudita Pure, though I did successfully receive a refund for the latter two.1

There are some success stories, though. My Pine64 devices work great — though they have non-free components — and I have a HiFive Unmatched that I’m reasonably pleased with. Raspberry Pi is going well, if you can find one — also with non-free components — and Arduino and products like it are serving their niche pretty well. I hear the MNT Reform went well, though by then I had learned to be a bit more hesitant to open my wallet for open hardware, so I don’t have one myself. Pebble worked, until it didn’t. Caveats abound in all of these projects.

What does open hardware need to succeed, and why have many projects failed? And why do the successful products often have non-free components and poor stock? We can’t blame it all on the chip shortage and/or COVID: it’s been an issue for a long time.

I don’t know the answers, but I hope we start seeing improvements. I hope that the successful projects will step into a mentorship role to provide up-and-comers with tips on how they made their projects work, and that we see a stronger focus on liberating non-free components. Perhaps Crowd Supply can do some work in helping to secure investment2 for open hardware projects, and continue the good work they’re already doing on guiding them through the development and production processes.

Part of this responsibility comes down to the consumer: spend your money on free projects, and don’t spend your money on non-free projects. But, we also need to look closely at the viability of each project, and open hardware projects need to be transparent about their plans, lest we get burned again. Steering the open hardware movement out of infancy will be a challenge for all involved.

Are you working on a cool open hardware project? Let me know. Explain how you plan on making it succeed and, if I’m convinced that your idea has promise, I’ll add a link here.

  1. I reached out to DragonBox recently and haven’t heard back yet, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. EOMA68, however, is, uh, not going so well. ↩︎

  2. Ideally with careful attention paid to making sure that the resulting device does not serve its investors needs better than its users needs. ↩︎

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