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Notes from the Open-Source Hardware Summit 2012

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Hey guys,

I attended the Open-Source Hardware Summit (OSHWS) last week in NYC. It was basically a full day of back-to-back-to-back speakers who talked anything from their experiences giving/taking from OSHW or running an OSHW business to more meta-questions about the ethos of OSHW. I think a lot of it ties into what we're doing in this Farm Hack community. Once I find the slides and videos of the presentations become available, I'll be sure to link them here but until then, I'll share some initial notes of mine.

First of all, I'd like to say something that surprised me in a good way: the OSHW movement, based purely on the conference on Thursday, seems extremely pragmatic. Many speakers were urging the community to consider the open vs close trade-offs and to not get caught up in OSHW dogma. I think that the fact that openess "feel right" is great, but what will ultimately encourage companeis and others to be open are pragmatic arguments and examples.

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief at Wired magazine, was the keynote speaker and gave an opening speech about his DIY drone business. He made the fundamental argument for open-source hardware, which is that open-source hardware has allowed him to innovate faster. The idea is that giving away schematics and designs allows your user-base to tinker and fix things as they see fit; by enabling this behavior, you've effectively created a horde of codevelopers. In doing so, you do enable clones and copy-cats but that's OK, because the trade-off is a vibrant user community - THAT cannot be cloned.

As he moved on, however, he did get to mention that he it is possible that eventually certain technologies may be closed in his business. This comment was extremely relevant, since during the past week there had been a bit of a noise in the community about MakerBot, a 3D printing company, also maintaining some closed aspects to their business. I find this phenomenon to be very though-provoking, since it seems that as these businesses grow and mature (at least relative to OSHW businesses), they take a less "purest" approach in favor of a pragmatic one. The thought-process is extremely salient and I think justified: when you start making larger capital investments and when you become the livelihood for more and more people, the necessity to be defensive becomes stronger. Moreover, Makerbot's open vs. close strategy, if I were to sum it up in a sentence, boils down to: "It must be open if it enhances the user experience and their ability to hack; if it's non-necessary for that and only enables copy-cats, then it can be closed." They've made their aluminum chassis closed which in no way is a detriment to the user experience and in no way keeps a super-user from developing their own Makerbot derivative, just as long as they come up with their own chassis design. It only hurts knock-off factories, the only people set up for that kind of metal-working, to make an easy duplicate.

On the other front, OSHW is facing several challenges similar to Farm Hack and documentation is a big one. The community is yearning for a method of branching, pulling, and of general version control similar to that offered by Github for code. Perhaps the crazy things happening in the world of 3D printing will continue bridging the gap between analog and digital but for now OSHW and FH share that obstacle.

One interesting resource was mentioned by the creator of Make Magazine and that is his "Maker-Faire Playbook." Although I've never been involved in any FH event planning, perhaps those that have will find inspiration for modelling our own event planning guidebook.

Finally, one note about one speaker that cropped up: Pat Delaney is a mechanical engineer who has designed some fascinating low-level fabrication tools. He presented a concrete built lathe which he seemed to suggest was the foundation of fabrication abilities. Not particularly my field, but a perhaps someone here will find it interesting.

Anyway, that's it for now. I'll add more thoughts & comments as they crop up. Let me know if you guys have any thoughts!