Hardware vendors are missing the opportunity of open source

Alternative Linksys firmware proves that customers can contribute more than just revenue

Enterprising hardware hackers managed another coup last week, having successfully installed a version of the open source DD-WRT firmware on the latest revision of the Linksys WRT54G wireless router. The WRT54G became something of a fan favorite a few years ago, when Linksys released the source code to the router's Linux-based firmware. Since then, a number of custom variations on the original have appeared that add features Linksys never intended, of which DD-WRT is arguably the best.

Recent shipments of the WRT54G have been problematic, however. The model number is the same and the factory-stock feature set hasn't changed, but the underlying hardware is different. Newer units have less RAM, for one thing. What's more, they don't run Linux anymore. Instead, they are based on a version of Wind River's VxWorks embedded OS.

To be fair, Linksys still markets a Linux-powered version of the router, now known as the WRT54GL. But the custom firmware community sees this as a halfhearted acknowledgment of its efforts, at best. At worst, it sees Linksys as thumbing its nose at some of its staunchest supporters -- the Linux version is now priced higher than the mainstream VxWorks-powered version.

Undaunted, the hackers of the DD-WRT project knew that even though the newer version of the router was underpowered, it was still capable of more than what its stock firmware provided. With a little ingenuity, they were able to load it with a custom version of DD-WRT that fit into its smaller RAM footprint. And so, modified firmware fans had something to smile about once again.

But why does it have to be this way?

So far, the relationship between Linksys and the various modified firmware projects can be described as a "friendly antagonism." Hackers flash their own custom firmwares into their routers, irrespective of Linksys' wishes. In turn, Linksys grudgingly acknowledges the demand for its Linux-based product but otherwise ignores the activities of the alternative firmware groups, beyond charging a premium for their hardware.

Linksys is missing out on a larger opportunity here. The features that alternative firmwares add to the WRT54G series aren't mere hobbyist curiosities -- they’re real-world enhancements that give the hardware new features for gaming, security, network management, or VoIP. Some of them are features that are otherwise only available from more expensive products from Linksys' competitors.

If anything, these third-party enhancements have already saved the Linksys product from commoditization. Dozens of other vendors market wireless routers with comparable basic functionality to Linksys’. The difference is that the Linksys product can be made to do more.

So instead of dismissing the hobbyist community with regard to its products, why shouldn't Linksys embrace it? Instead of charging extra for a special version of its products, it could sponsor a developer program and give discounts on hardware to interested programmers. It could even sponsor an open source firmware project of its own, and incorporate community contributions into future shipping versions of the router. The fact that DD-WRT now runs on the less powerful, newer versions of the WRT54G proves there are some pretty clever hardware hackers out there, and Linksys is missing out.

Open source is changing the way that enterprises and individuals develop, evaluate, and purchase software. Why shouldn't hardware follow suit?

For yesterday's vendors, product development was something of a gamble: The successes made money, while the failures quietly disappeared. Tomorrow's companies will recognize that it's possible to develop new products as an ongoing collaboration with customers, where the community of users helps to refine and improve the basic design in ways the manufacturer may not have foreseen.

The process is already taking place, albeit mostly behind the scenes. If more forward-thinking vendors would step up to the challenge, community-driven hardware could become the norm, rather than a niche.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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