Hardware for the holidays: Why not open source?

A real, useful, open source computer, the $35 Raspberry Pi is powerful enough to use as a PBX. A DIY laptop is coming, too

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That means using components whose datasheets are freely available without an NDA. It means using only firmware that has source code available -- no binary-only firmware blobs. Naturally, it means designing optimally for running an open source operating system -- Linux, in this case. A few optional items require a closed source firmware blob (most notably the GPU), but the system remains functional and bootable without these items. Making sure the design is open and requires no special relationships with vendors to complete doesn't mean the standards are lower. Huang is using top-spec components and designing a highly desirable device.

This is the complete opposite of the approach taken both by computer manufacturers like Apple and by the mobile device industry. They want the design to be sealed and untouchable to the point where it's almost impossible to repair it, let alone replicate it. As we found last week, Apple doesn't even want its Lightning connector shipped with other connector designs.

Huang's open laptop is representative of a new wave of thinking about systems that I am sure will grow. By making the system as open as possible, we stimulate growth of an innovative ecosystem around it. It's working for Android, where the system is open enough for explosive growth of business and individuals innovating around it. Android is at the heart of systems that hardly acknowledge it, such as Amazon's Kindle Fire, yet that usage does no harm to the growth of the actual Android ecosystem.

Both my Pi PBX and Huang's open laptop are symbols of the empowerment open source brings. With the freedom to use, study, improve, and share software without further permission, it's then possible to improve the hardware too. That freedom is at the heart of open source.

This article, "Hardware for the holidays: Why not open source?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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