Friday, November 5, 2010

Alan Shea: An Open Source Hardware DRM Radio is very fortunate to feature here an article written by Alan Shea, DRM enthusiast and broadcasting professional. Take his challenge to heart. What can YOU do to help Alan's dream become a reality?

Some background: A circuit board for the masses: the Arduino microcontroller.

Indeed, 50,000 Arduino units have been sold worldwide since mass production began two years ago. Those are small numbers by Intel standards but large for a startup outfit in a highly specialized market.

What’s really remarkable, though, is Arduino’s business model: The team has created a company based on giving everything away. On its Web site, it posts all its trade secrets for anyone to take—all the schematics, design files, and software for the Arduino board. Download them and you can manufacture an Arduino yourself; there are no patents.

You can send the plans off to a Chinese factory, mass-produce the circuit boards, and sell them yourself — pocketing the profit without paying Banzi a penny in royalties. He won’t sue you. Actually, he’s sort of hoping you’ll do it.

A fairly lengthy article, but well worth reading. The comparisons between open-source software and open-source hardware are inevitable; the obvious difference is that copies of software cost zero where there is a finite cost to copying hardware.

On the other hand, publishing your design (schematics, board layouts, microcontroller code, etc) under a Creative Commons share-alike license does put a stake in the heart of the competition in that, since anyone can make one, they will have to innovate in some other way to distinguish themselves from the rest of the competition. And if the designs are licensed under a Creative Commons share-alike license, any innovations and improvements your competition adds to it help you as well.

So either they go find something else to compete on, or they help you, and vice-versa. Its like the synergy of having a Burger King and McDonald's next to one another -- they both do more business, not less, because more people come in the first place because they have a choice, than would have come if there were only one choice.

The original inventor still gets the credit, and by virtue of being first and publishing the reference design, most of the improvements and suggestions come directly back to them (instead of to the competition -- but the competition, by virtue of the original license, has no monopoly on improvements they receive either).

You also get lots of help from people who see improvements that can be made and submit them. People are generally pleased to be able to contribute to something that scratches their "niche" and many will even pay for something they can have for free. The Linux revolution bears ample witness.

Speaking of which, another article I ran across today estimates the value of Red Hat Linux 7.1 at $1.2 billion using typical proprietary development methods; the current version of Fedora would be similarly worth $10.8 billion (204.5 million lines of code in 5547 applications - over 1000 developers, at least 100 companies contribute to each kernel release; over 3200 developers and 200 companies in the last two years alone).

I'm just raising the question if there are enough parallels to make it worthwhile to do something along those lines, even partially. There are a lot of amateurs interested in DRM, and quite a few who would like to build their own receivers and transmitters. What if they were invited to participate?

The downside of course is that someone would have to coordinate and manage the public side of the project; but there again, volunteers could help fill that gap.

The Arduino inventors have thrived because of the competition, and while not knowing where it will go in the future, are very excited about what it has done for them.

But he suspected that if Arduino were open, it would inspire more interest and more free publicity than a piece of proprietary, closed hardware. What’s more, excited geeks would hack it and—like Linux fans—contact the Arduino team to offer improvements. They would capitalize on this free work, and every generation of the board would get better. Sure enough, that’s what happened. Within months, geeks suggested wiring changes and improvements to the programming language.

The more I think about this idea, the more I wonder if this is what it would take to break the DRM market loose and open the floodgates. DRM is already an "open" standard, but the bar is still too high for amateurs, semi-professionals, and most radio stations that could benefit.

By way of example, someone once said, "Space travel is so expensive that only governments can do it because only governments do it." The private company SpaceX, founded by one of the co-founders of PayPal, last month "became the first privately built liquid rocket to orbit the Earth".

In another discussion about why space travel is so expensive, Rand Simberg says, "even the theoretically best vehicle concept, if flown rarely, will be unaffordable to fly. A mediocre design, flown often, will beat it in cost per flight. How frequently we used the hypothetical launch system was much more important than what kind of propellant it used, or how many stages it had, or whether it took off or landed horizontally or vertically, or any other design choice."

Compare flying on the Concorde versus flying on a 747 -- because there were only a few Concorde airplanes built it was always very expensive to fly on one. The 747 -- not much cachet to flying on one now, they're quite "pedestrian" and for the "plebes", simply because of their ubiquity.

Its the economy of scale that makes it affordable. This dovetails with the open-source software mantra of "release early and release often".

To get something to market at the economy of scale to make it worthwhile requires enormous resources, not only in development costs but in the costs of creating and nurturing that market. The open-source model is to plant seeds and grow the market and manufacturing together on a distributed scale.

The big holdup for an affordable DRM receiver is a combined chipset. But there are embedded computers that could do it cheaper than the commercial radios today if the software stack and a DIY front-end were developed. (I'm talking about a stand-alone radio, not one running on a general-purpose computer.) DReaM is probably the primary listening tool of most DRM enthusiasts today; but virtually none of them would exist if DReaM were not open-source.

Linux has gone beyond the tipping point to where commercial software is being developed and sold that runs on that platform; once there is a demonstrable significant base of DRM listeners broadcasters will begin to move more confidently in that direction.

The genius of open source is that the multiplier and revenue comes from the "because of" effects rather than the product itself. (In a way, GM is like this: they have supposedly not made a profit on a passenger car in more than a decade, instead making profits on the financing of cars. GM is really in the finance business, not the car business; they only sell cars to sell financing...) At first it was simply because they enjoyed giving away their work and the acclaim that they garnered by it; later it became more formalized in things like the GPL and Eric Raymond's essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar".

Is it time to think more on the lines of the bazaar?

Further thoughts:

There is an analog to "open-source hardware", i.e., publishing your hardware or firmware specifications under an open license: academic research.

In academia, being first to publish research is most of what counts (assuming the research and results are valid!). Its "secret" information before publication, but the act of publishing your results creates notoriety (in the good sense), and the latter is the "currency" of academia, not secret knowledge.

The expectation is that others will build on your research, acknowledging your work and creating more good notoriety for your name. The product is not the end result, the product of the product is. Knowledge is power, and there are two ways to look at it: it is power if you keep it yourself (job security), or it is power if you share it (increasing the pool).

In the case of hardware/firmware, its more the idea of setting the standard by becoming ubiquitous because everyone builds on your design.

Alan Shea is with the HCJB Technology Center. The views expressed are his own.