Joi Ito: Open-source hardware is a no brainer

Open-source hardware is on its way, and it will foster a new era of innovation, according to MIT Media Lab director Joichi “Joi” Ito.
The emergence of freely available hardware designs and near-free components will unleash the same sort of technology innovation that open-source software kicked off a decade or so ago, Ito said Tuesday.
“If you want to build a video camera, some day you’ll be able to find all the standard parts, the designs online for free, and then you’ll only design the pieces of the product that interest you,” Ito said at an MITX fireside chat in Cambridge, Mass.
Developers would focus their attention on the more valuable hardware they build atop that standard base, just as software developers write specialized software that runs on Linux and open-source middleware instead of proprietary Unix or Windows (s msft) operating systems and Oracle’s (s orcl) WebLogic or IBM’s (s IBM) WebSphere middleware.
The industry is starting to talk open-source hardware in the context of the Open Compute Foundation, which focuses on data center servers. Ito is talking of far broader application.
Ito used the birth of Google (s goog) as an example of the creativity open-source software enabled.  If Google Co-Founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page started out without open source, they would have had to spend big money on operating systems and other commercial software to do what they did, he said. But, because of open source, “all they had to do is write a little software and connect it to university network [all] for a couple thousand dollars,” he said.
The advent of open-source software decimated start-up costs of software companies and that, in turn, sparked an “explosion of innovation in the valley because you could try anything,” he said.
In the same manner, the adoption of the open-source model will siphon costs out of hardware design, because companies won’t have to devote as much capital to equipment. They could download designs to build them themselves or sign a contract manufacturer to build them.
The cost savings will push hardware innovation “into smaller companies, into academic labs and dorm rooms,”  Ito said.

Advances in 3-D printing will also make it easier and less expensive for smaller companies to quickly create physical prototypes of their designs, leveling another hurdle.
“The idea of printing gadgets is not far away … not as far away as you think,” Ito said.
That all means smaller companies that innovate can sustain themselves while staying small. “VCs used to snark that that’s not a company, that’s a feature. Products and companies used to have to be huge things, things like AOL. (s aol) [But] today you can have very small, focused companies.”
And small companies, he said, are where innovation thrives.

Panel photo courtesy of MITX director Debi Kleiman.