[Discuss] discuss Digest, Vol 10, Issue 101

Matt Maier blueback09 at gmail.com
Wed Mar 27 00:30:42 UTC 2013

Windell, this was your question from another message, but I'm gonna paste
it here so it's more relevant.

"*Can you please explain, what it is exactly about the complexity of
hardware projects that you think Github cannot handle?*"

> This is actually one of the big improvements in Eagle 6-- the XML file
> format.  Some other EDA programs (including gEDA and KiCAD) have
> human-readable, diffable file formats.
> Also, github does support visual diffs for images in repositories.  One of
> the consequences of this is that if you include a current image of the
> SCH/BRD with each commit, you can use the visual diff even on pure binary
> files.
> ( I've written more about this kind of stuff on my blog, too:
> http://www.evilmadscientist.com/2011/improving-open-source-hardware-visual-diffs/)
> Windell H. Oskay, Ph.D.
> Co-Founder and Chief Scientist
> Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories
> 175 San Lazaro Ave, STE 150
> Sunnyvale CA 94086
> http://www.evilmadscientist.com/
> I am not trying to imply that there is anything wrong with Github. It's a
specific example mostly because "Github for hardware" is a popular phrase
that more-or-less captures the issue. Github is basically the gold standard
(in several combined dimensions) for open source software collaboration, so
it makes sense to want the same benefits for hardware.

Git as a software engine provides distributed version control, which is
awesome and seems like a turn-key solution for ANY files, no matter what
they describe. Github as a web portal provides additional capabilities that
augment Git and those are where I think it falls short of what open
hardware requires.

By that setup I do not mean that it's impossible to do open hardware
development with the current tools. Obviously, it's possible.

What I mean is what I assume Chris Anderson meant when he wrote, "until
your project is in a public version-control system, it’s open source in
name only<http://www.wired.com/design/2012/05/we-need-version-control-for-real-stuff/all/>
." A project that releases all of the source files under an open license is
an open project, but it is open in name only. To be actively open it has to
attract new developers and inspire activity like forking, generational
change, and interconnected dependencies.

The (open and/or free) tools available at the moment, including the ones on
Github, are not up to the task of tracking all of the interrelated
dimensions of a hardware project well enough to allow an "actively open"
level of activity. When we remix the digital elements of a hardware project
we are not messing around with the project itself; we are merely adjusting
a description of the project. It is much simpler to specify an absolutely
correct transition between one bit of code and another than it is to
specify an absolutely correct transition from one physical object or
process to another. It is much easier to introduce ambiguity into hardware
definitions and much harder to fight off entropy because there are so many
more things that can be inadequately or improperly described.

Up to this point it has only been worthwhile to tackle that level of
complexity when a project could plausibly become a marketable commercial
product. The tools to do it absolutely exist, but they are absolutely only
worth the cost and learning curve when a bunch of jobs are on the line.
This is analogous to the inception of the RepRap project. Dr. Bowyer didn't
invent 3D printers, he just made a 3D printer that cost so little, and was
so easy to use, it covered the lowest conceivable part of the market. We
aren't going to invent any aspect of product lifecycle management, but we
are trying to invent a tool that is so cheap and easy to use that it covers
the bottom of the market. One hobbyist working in their spare time on a pet

I believe that Github (and version control in general) can handle hardware
projects if the information is structured in the correct way and has the
right user interface. That structure/interface is what we need to work out.

By way of a supporting example, I'd like to direct your attention to
the LifeTrac
Fabrication instructions<http://opensourceecology.org/wiki/File:TractorIIIfab.pdf>over
at Open Source Ecology. I know those instructions are pretty good
because I wrote them. But, for the same reason, I also know that they are
dead. The label "open" can be un-sarcastically applied to them, but there
is no way for developers to interact with them. They are open in name only.
Halfway through producing the unpublished version of those instructions I
started over because I realized that the information needed to be recorded
in a way that allowed interaction. At the time the best option I could
think of was an open source project management program (a database with a
user interface). The majority of those instructions were actually generated
from an OpenProj file, as described
That is better because if someone wants to modify the tractor (modify the
build instructions) they can edit the OpenProj file, which will keep track
of resources and steps automatically (more-or-less). Then they can generate
a new set of instructions without having to rewrite all of the details by
hand. Better, but all that increase in capability does is highlight how
much MORE capability is necessary to make the project truly remixable. No
one can read or edit the actual OpenProj file without the software. No part
of the file or the result can be pulled out and combined with anything
else. It is a cathedral with a common room, not a bazaar.

The point I got to in that documentation project is roughly the point the
whole open hardware community is currently at. Sure, I could put the
LifeTrac's OpenProj file on Github, but there's no relevant way to compare
differences between two database files. The problem is not with the
documentation so much as it's with the structure it has been captured in
and the tools necessary to interact with that structure.

To sum up: hardware projects are more complicated because more variables
have to be accounted for if the instructions are to be correct. It is
currently possible to capture that complexity and to store it on Github,
but it is not possible to interact with it in a way that allows for the
project to be "truly" open.

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.oshwa.org/pipermail/discuss/attachments/20130326/693a4733/attachment-0001.html>

More information about the discuss mailing list