[Discuss] discuss Digest, Vol 10, Issue 101

Windell Oskay windell at oskay.net
Wed Mar 27 03:32:34 UTC 2013

On Mar 26, 2013, at 5:30 PM, Matt Maier <blueback09 at gmail.com> wrote:

> 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." 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.

I must disagree with you on this.  I see a difference between "open" and "active."    

I'd like to encourage active projects, but I wouldn't say that a project becomes "less open" if it falls out of favor or less work is being done on it.  (Amongst other things, that could also mean that it's reached a stable status of development.)   I'd even love to see thousands of already-dead projects from industry released under open source hardware licenses in the future.

> 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.

I'm afraid that this doesn't agree with my experience either.  There are *a lot of us* here that do remix the elements of hardware projects, not just their descriptions.  

> By way of a supporting example, I'd like to direct your attention to the LifeTrac Fabrication instructions 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 Halfway through producing the unpublished version of those instructions I started over because I realized that the information needed to be recorded in a way that allowed interaction.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 here. 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.

According to our current community standards, the LifeTrac Fabrication instructions would generally not be regarded as an "open" part of the tractor's open source hardware release because you have chosen to not publish the original design files.     So as a "supporting example" to argue that releasing the design files alone isn't enough to be considered "truly open," it doesn't provide much support. 

In any case, from what you are describing, it sounds it would have been a really good idea to open the files for this project, so that someone could generate a new set of instructions (say, after modifying the solidworks files) without rewriting all of the details by hand.    And it's even written in free software.  It's sometimes better to write the instructions in poor/inappropriate but free software than to do so in appropriate but extremely expensive software.   

You say that this is "roughly the point the whole open hardware community is currently at."  But, I'd like to think that we're beyond that.  
Most of us claiming to do open source hardware really are releasing our design files, even if one sometimes has to work at it to make use of them. Case in point: the actual hardware designs for the LifeTrac *are* on github, even though a pricey chunk of software is required to modify them.

> To sum up: hardware projects are more complicated because more variables have to be accounted for if the instructions are to be correct.

This argument is equivalent to "Hardware is harder/more complex than software."  My personal opinion is that this is an unfair generalization.  Both software and hardware can become incredibly complex projects, and involve the need to keep track of many simultaneous changes between stable, functional releases.    You can break a codebase so that it won't compile, and you can introduce mechanical interferences so that a machine can't be assembled.   The total number of variables isn't necessarily bigger or smaller in software or hardware.  

It also reminds me of a strange interaction that I had this year with a fellow who was making a hardware derivative of another OSHW project (yes, a real derivative, not just "adjusting a description" ) who said that he didn't need to follow the "share alike" part of the CC-BY-SA license, because the circuit that he was copying was "too simple."   Of course, it all depends on perspective: one person's complex is another's simple. 

Windell H. Oskay, Ph.D.
Co-Founder and Chief Scientist
Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories
175 San Lazaro Ave, STE 150
Sunnyvale CA 94086
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