Open Source Inches Its Way into Gadget Market

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A device like the RepRap, a 3D printer for rapid prototyping, could play a significant part in open-source hardware development. The RepRap is itself open source. While commercially available 3D printers cost around $20,000 at the low end, the RepRap's design is freely available to anyone who wants to build one. (Its developers estimate that the materials cost around $480.) What's more, the RepRap can replicate many of its own parts, with the rest of its parts cheaply available, so you can build another one using the first.

Open Source Inches Its Way into Gadget Market
The RepRap rapid prototyper

"Someone with a RepRap or a laser cutter and a soldering iron can put together something. Open hardware designs combined with rapid fabrication gets at exactly the original intent of open-source software — if the design is open, you can modify it to meet your needs, and freely share those modifications with others," says Adams.

Although the RepRap and other rapid-prototyping machines can speed up prototyping, they're not an end-all solution since their capabilities are meant for creating only the housing or external case for a gadget. Such a machine can help build prototypes of, say, a netbook's outer shell faster, but most of the device's internal electronics still need to be sourced out for manufacture.

Nevertheless, opening up a device to the public (especially during its early design phase) encourages the formation of a community that can propose and contribute improvements. This can help reduce the number of prototypes that need to be built, saving money and time.

The Lack of Open-Source Culture Among Component Makers

A device that is open source does not necessarily mean every component within its design schematic is also open source — in fact, it probably uses several proprietary parts.

Any consumer tech device is built with many smaller components. The makers of these parts are usually secretive about revealing their inner workings, unless it's to a paying client. This can be a challenge for anyone trying to develop open-source hardware if their device's design plans are to be released publicly.

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