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February 28, 2008

Free Software vs. Open Hardware

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I watched the video of a talk from Linux.Conf.Au yesterday, “How To Build An Embedded Asterisk IP-PBX”.

Within this, David Rowe talks about how he got interested in starting such a project, how it was realised, and what future plans are (all of which was very interesting). The IP04 is the primary product produced thus far, which is based entirely on open hardware (much of it designed by Rowe himself). What was most interesting, for me, was the motivation for the project that David talked about when mentioning open hardware, that he wanted to drive the market price of VoIP hardware down.

Coming from someone who was talking a lot about liking FOSS (though using the O more than the F), this seems like an unusually capitalist argument. The economic argument for it is obvious: if I can design my hardware for free (by using the open hardware designs) then I can still make a decent profit while massively undercutting any of my competitors.

From the limited results that have been seen so far (production of the open hardware is still being ramped up), this model works for hardware. So, why is it that we don’t see the same results with Free Software? Is it because the economic model for open hardware is massively different from that for Free Software? I don’t believe so.

I believe it is because the markets in which the vast majority of Free Software competes are much broader than the market in which the IP04 and it’s forthcoming friends compete. The open hardware, in this case, has a very specific purpose, it is meant to connect phone calls (and, in fact, Asterisk, on which it is based, is one of the more successful Free Software projects in commercial terms). Free Software, however, rarely strives merely to replace proprietary software but instead tries to improve it.

Improvement obviously requires change. Once the Free Software has changed from what it was originally intended to replace, it is no longer a direct competitor. It may fulfil all of the functions that are really important to certain applications of it (normally those that the developers, be they paid or otherwise, are most interested in) but inevitably supports some use cases of the original in a worse manner0.

And, of course, a lot of Free Software was never written to replace proprietary software (i.e. Rhythmbox was intended to be a media player, not necessarily a direct replacement for Windows Media Centre), which means it has even less common ground to compete on. In fact, projects that started like this often require a complete paradigm shift, which means that differing parties are arguing at complete cross-purposes.

I’m not sure how to conclude this post, other than to suggest that Free Software projects that aim to replace a proprietary project tend to do better, within traditionally proprietary markets, than those that attempt to truly innovate. How does this reflect on what projects individuals choose to start and what projects companies who are competing in those markets choose to contribute to?

[Footnote 0: This, naturally, leads to the problems with benchmarking competing software products, each camp chooses the 10% of their project which is unique and better than the other, and spends time trying to convince people that that’s what’s really important.]

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