Open Hardware at EFY-Expo 2011

04 Mar 2011

Recently attended the Design Conference at EFY-Expo 2012 which was held between the 17th and 19th of February at New Delhi, India. EFY and Reed Exhibitions came together to organize the first mega electronics exhibition for 2011 in India. You can get the full spiel from

Under the umbrella of this Expo an Embedded Design Conference was held which had panel discussions and sessions by several industry experts from both the hardware and software areas.  EFY managed to get representation from the entire value chain of open hardware, all the way from IP cores that are open source through open source tools to develop such hardware to opening up the repair process of hardware you own!

Some of the people I had a chance of meeting were:
  • Massimo Banzi : Co-founder of Arduino, created the first wildly popular open hardware platform
  • Marcus Erlandsson : CTO of OrSOC, which owns
  • Syed Mohammad Khasim : Core Team Member, Beagle board, a high end and yet again wildly popular open hardware platform
  • Shakthi Kannan : developer for  FEL (Fedora Elctronic Lab), a spin of Fedora which collects all open source hardware design tools
  • Kyle Wiens : CEO of iFixit, which is trying to add the freedom of repairing your hardware to the list of freedoms for "free hardware"

They key take aways I got from the conference were:
  1. Organizations do not add any value for IPs that are standard such as UARTs, DDR Controller's e.t.c.
  2. Verification is taking up more and more time in the development cycle and sharing this cost across organizations should help in driving TTM. And in fact would be inevitable as interfaces become more and more complex.
  3. The licensing for open source hardware needs to permit organizations to add their proprietary (value add) IPs to a system using open IPs without requiring them to open source those IPs. So GPL does not work for open hardware. Some efforts to modify open source licensing has been done by the Arduino project.
  4. Owning a product should grant you the right to repair it yourself if need be. And open hardware helps make this possible. iFixit hopes to become the home to repair manuals for every product on the planet, preventing things from being thrown away.
  5. Open hardware is truely enabled only with open tools, available to a wide range of community. What GCC does for open software. With FEL we have decent tools to do most development.
  6. Products are being developed and sold based totally on open hardware. Syed Khasim brandished a really cool tablet based entirely on the Beagle Board Platform.

FOSS (Free Open Source Software) is hugely popular, and lots of companies have built business models around it. To the extent that they are able to remain profitable while sharing all the development they do with a much larger community. The same has not happened, or at least on the same scale, for open hardware.

Some challenges I think hampering open hardware adoption in general are:
  1. Bugs in hardware discovered after silicon is made is much more catastrophic for hardware than for software, and having your source open makes you that much more liable to explain every line of code if you use it in your product
  2. Open hardware is more expensive to use than open software. Most people have a computer at home and can download and evaluate software for suitability of their use. Same is not yet the case with hardware. If I want to evaluate open hardware, I need to buy/manufacture the board to test it on. Thus contribution and use of open hardware is inherrently limited by this factor.
  3. To do anything useful with hardware you need an application and software for that application. That is if the hardware you have designed is generic enough. Writing software for embedded systems is a non-trivial task. Though Arduino's IDE is I think a step in the right direction.
  4. If the hardware platform is too generic, it is not cost optimised for your application and if it is not generic enough, you don't get the benefit of scores of people validating it with you.

Another concern that Massimo raised was the high consumption and low contribution that open source hardware projects see from emerging countries such as India. Syed Khasim responded that engineers in India were unwilling to contribute to such projects and risk the ire of their employers. If organizations on the other hand were to support such initiatives, the expected contributions could increase manifold. Further the non-prevalence of broadband widely in India was also cited as a possible reason by Shakthi Kannan.

Overall, the design conference did give me an entirely new perspective on the possibilities of open hardware.

At EFY-Expo 2011

From left to right: Rajkumar Agrawal, Mohammad Haris Minai, Kyle Wiens, Massimo Banzi, Shakthi Kannan, Marcus Erlandsson, Syed Mohammed Khasim

Other pictures are at: