Pondering the Relationship Between OSHW and Business
A few days ago, Bre Pettis, the CEO of MakerBot Industries, one of the most prominent open source hardware companies, published a statement about why the company released its newest software under a closed-source license and is considering not open sourcing parts of its new products. These are some of my thoughts on the questions Bre raises.
Before going into that, I’d like to reiterate Tom Igoe’s and Phil Torrone’s advice that we all remain very civil. The open source hardware community is relatively new, we have a lot to think through and many public discussions to engage in as we address developments, obstacles and successes. In the many years I’ve been involved with this community, I’ve always been impressed with how kind, polite and respectful everyone is. I’m so proud of being part of a massive and international group that can express opinions, debate issues and arrive at solutions with no ‘blood shed’. We’re a shiny example of collaborative production, all eyes are on us, so let’s keep the high standards we’ve maintained so far.
I respect MakerBot’s stance. Their commitment to honoring the licenses of the external contributions that go into their products does not seem to be in question, and that’s all we can ask of them. Many of us, myself included, have an idealistic and somewhat emotional relationship with open source – we want to do what we love and make the world a better place in the process. However, it’s good to keep in mind that it’s not up to any of us to dictate how each company is run. We may wish they did things the way we think they should be done, but our wishes are just that and we must respect everyone’s choices.
Having said that, I’d like to address some of the broader questions Bre raises.
In a comment on his statement, Bre suggests that although we have a definition, we don’t have a business model. This isn’t completely accurate. There is a business model and it works, as SparkFun, Adafruit, Arduino, EMSL and many others have shown. It just doesn’t translate point by point to MakerBot because their situation is different: they have a single large product (instead of many individual products), their hardware is targeted at a consumer market (instead of the education/maker market) and they have more employees than the average OSHW company. Even if OSHW is not working out for MakerBot for any number of reasons, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the first OSHW company to face the growth dilemma. SparkFun has 135 employees, a revenue of over $20M, and has been around since 2003.
Bre mentions Chumby as an example of an OSHW consumer product company that didn’t work out. This is a bit misleading in this context since, as a far as I know, being OSHW has nothing to do with why Chumby is no longer around. It’s important to keep in mind that this is not about OSHW in general. This is about MakerBot’s specific nature and the choices the company made (which are not for us to judge).
So I’d like to respond to Bre’s question – what examples of big, successful OSHW companies are out there? – with another question: what examples are out there of hardware companies that failed because they were open source? As far as I can see, management, pricing and market are bigger liabilities for companies than being open. This is not a comment on any specific company’s management style, just something to keep in mind when assessing the performance of OSHW companies in general.
It’s true that there is no one in the OSHW community comparable to MakerBot – not because of its size (SparkFun is probably just as big), but because of its product type. But if we look beyond the confines of our community, there is a very good example: the fashion industry. They don’t share designs, but then again that’s not strictly necessary. Everyone can pick up a dress, figure out how it was made and replicate it, legally. Fashion companies – big, small and medium – are manufacturers (facing the same issues as all other manufacturers), co-exist in a highly competitive space, all their products are consumer products, and they’re not protected by copyright nor patents. Rather, they rely on brand and fast innovation. So there is indeed a very old and well established precedent we can all learn from. Check out at this great overview by Johanna Blakley (thanks Dustyn Roberts for pointing it out!)
Finally, if everything can be reverse-engineered and cloned — and most OSHW products can, even if their plans weren’t freely available — this is, in my opinion, the very reason to do it the open source way. Not releasing plans is only giving a company a few days head start, since that’s probably how long it’ll take their competitors to reverse-engineer the average device. So why not make a statement and release the plans under an open source license? The outcome will be the same, but the support and respect of their customers, the number of people who chose to buy from them instead of from their competitors because they appreciate what they are doing, will increase.
MakerBot has a few clones, most of which are illegally using its trademark, but will this new direction change that? Or will they continue to be cloned and eventually be pushed into enforcing IP that may not even be applicable outside the US borders? And at what price, both in currency and reputation, would this come?
Whatever the motivations each of us has to contribute to open source hardware, the reality is that IP doesn’t prevent cloning nor unfair competition (if you’re in NYC take a trip down to Canal St.). And companies should ask themselves whether they are willing to sue their own customers in the process of preventing competitors from copying their products. Can reputation and taking a stand by pioneering the collaborative economy be much bigger and practical assets than IP?
These are timely questions looking for answers. More than mourning the (eventual) loss of an open source hardware project, it’s important to start creating and testing additional business models that work for different types of companies and products.
Be excellent to each other and, when in doubt, try Tom Igoe’s grandma test 🙂