Open Source Inches Its Way into Gadget Market

A consumer-oriented open-source project that has so far failed to catch on is the Neo FreeRunner smartphone and its supporting Linux-based platform, called Openmoko. The project was launched by Openmoko Inc., with both the operating system and the design plans for the internal electronics and housing available for others to use and improve on.

Open Source Inches Its Way into Gadget Market
The Neo FreeRunner smartphone

The company officially stopped supporting the project in April 2009, according to Product Manager William Lai. "As time and technology progressed, the funds involved in competing with the likes of Apple, RIM, Android, etc. were out of our scope, and we soon realized that the technology outpaced our ability to deliver on a timely basis," he says.

However, the Openmoko platform and FreeRunner phone are still being developed by a volunteer community.

Distributing and Testing Hardware Is Difficult

With software, anyone can download a copy of an open-source program and try it out practically instantly. It's equally easy to give feedback to its developers and contribute code to fix bugs or add features.

The open-source model in software development thrives on this constant distribute-and-test process: The more copies of the code you can get into the hands of other people, and the quicker you do so, the faster the project's developers can field feedback in order to fix and improve the software for its next release.

But applying the open-source model to hardware isn't as straightforward. Copies of prototypes can be expensive to produce and distribute to fellow developers for evaluating and testing, so development doesn't progress as quickly.

Tisserant calls this "the cost of the test": "When you get your first piece of homemade hardware, you can do some modifications. But you will have to order a new piece with your new design. This takes time — a few weeks — as well as money."

In order to seriously challenge the traditional proprietary model of developing hardware, a manufacturing time frame of less than one week would be ideal, says Tisserant: "The easier and faster you can test, the easier and faster you can learn."

Turnaround time could be lessened with the use of affordable rapid prototyping or fabrication machines. For example, the body of the Frankencamera is laser-cut acrylic. So anyone with access to a laser cutter can take the plans for the Frankencamera's body and make their own.

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