[Discuss] Free Hardware

Matt Maier blueback09 at gmail.com
Thu Mar 12 21:38:04 UTC 2015

On Thu, Mar 12, 2015 at 1:23 PM, Javier Serrano <Javier.Serrano at cern.ch>

> I am trying to find a way to involve some
> of the 99% of the people out there who are great folks and have this
> legitimate expectation of being able to guarantee their physical
> survival, and that of their families, through their work.

How broad is your definition of "involve?" There are millions of people
"involved" with baseball. They never play baseball, and they never coach
baseball, but they pay attention to it and they laud the people who do it
well and they spend time/money on it directly or indirectly.

Making a living doing free/libre/open work isn't the only way to support
its availability.

> I am an
> electronics designer. I think I can assert without much risk of being
> wrong that a majority of the best electronics designers in the world are
> working on proprietary designs. I might be mistaken, but I don't think
> any amount of praise would make many of them drop their paid jobs and
> start designing openly for free.

There's a distinction between "give work away without charge" and "share
the rights to the work." The important part of free/libre/open is the
sharing of the rights to the work. It's entirely possible to make a living
doing something that has absolutely no secrecy. Take food for example.
Plenty of people make their living feeding people, but they don't keep any
secrets regarding where the food came from, or how it was prepared, or how
it was delivered. They get paid for doing the work because there is always
work to do.

I believe the way it works at Sparkfun is that they produce new products so
quickly there wouldn't be any time to profit from secrecy anyway. They
don't squeeze out one good idea, then lock it down with IP, then milk it
for as long as possible. Instead they put out a lot of decent ideas,
iterate on them based on experimentation and feedback, and then quickly put
out improved ideas. But they don't "work for free." Instead they share the
right to do things with the work so that other people can participate which
is where a lot of the speed comes from.

Besides, we're getting into the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic
motivation. Somebody can design electronics only when they're paid at
market rate and somebody else can do it only when they get to share it with
all of the other ham radio operators in the world. Same activity; different

> Do you think it is a worthwhile goal to
> try to attract some of that talent to free/open design, and if so, do
> you have a recipe for doing so that does not involve money?

Of course. I think an awful lot of tangible industries are going to end up
incorporating free/libre/open principles over the next couple decades. It
seems inevitable. But that's more like a bucket full of different
incentives than one cohesive goal. Hardware businesses are going to be
inherently more conservative than software businesses because all other
things being equal they have larger capital costs. The community can help
out by emphasizing the non-monetary incentives, but at the end of the day
hardware always costs money.

The community can praise individuals and organizations for each incremental
step they take towards free/libre/open and can always be ready to explain
it again and answer questions and clarify what the next step could be. The
community can also reach out to acknowledge or reward actors who did things
that are important to free/libre/open but don't come with automatic reward
(like documentation and interface refinement). The community can also
glorify the ideals so that the idea that free/libre/open is "better" seeps
into the collective unconscious. Another thing the community can do is
police itself so that it's a place people want to be just because it's a
nice place to be, not because they get something out of it that makes
putting up with the community tolerable.

> Since free software is a source of inspiration for many of us, let's ask
> the question: do you think the Linux kernel would be the same without
> Linus Torvalds and many other brilliant developers being paid to work
> full-time on it? If not, do you think it would be better or worse?

Well..."would it be the same" isn't much of a standard. Of course it would
be different. If nobody had ever been paid to work on it then it would most
likely perform worse than it does. A more interesting question is would the
Linux kernel perform better/worse if Torvalds had enforced community norms
like not swearing at each other. Torvalds himself seems to think so.

If we agree that thousands of little improvements can collectively benefit
the technology, then by extension missing out on thousands of little
improvements can collectively harm the technology.

Back to your question of people making their living off of free/libre/open
work; it's possible that many of the electronics engineers you mentioned
want a certain salary mostly because they have to put up with a lot of BS.
If the way they spent their day was just inherently more enjoyable maybe
they wouldn't need as much money to do it. What if the free/libre/open
community could make itself an inherently pleasant place to be? Maybe the
community could approach disagreements as opportunities to compete and
explore rather than battles to decide winners and idiots.

That's not to say that people can pay their mortgage with love ;) just that
if free/libre/open hardware is always going to inherently cost money we can
at least reduce the other barriers to entry.

Thanks, this is a really interesting conversation :)

> Thanks,
> Javier
> _______________________________________________
> discuss mailing list
> discuss at lists.oshwa.org
> http://lists.oshwa.org/listinfo/discuss
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