[Discuss] CAD software: where does OSHWA stand?

Rick Altherr kc8apf at kc8apf.net
Sun Mar 19 01:58:18 UTC 2017

On Mar 17, 2017 2:52 AM, "Javier Serrano" <Javier.Serrano at cern.ch> wrote:

Dear all,

Phillip's message about the Adafruit interview to Altium has reminded me
of something I have been wanting to submit to the list for some time. My
question is whether OSHWA has a strong official position about CAD
(including EDA) software, and in particular about proprietary vs FOSS.
And my suggestion if it does, would be to communicate it more clearly.

In the OSHWA "Best practices" page [1] one reads:

"Ideally, your open-source hardware project would be designed using a
free and open-source software application, to maximize the ability of
others to view and edit it. For better or worse however, hardware design
files are often created in proprietary programs and stored in
proprietary formats."

Maybe it's just me, but I like to think about OSHWA as "the FSF of
hardware", or OSI, or the Linux Foundation. Pick your favourite FOSS
organization. FSF identified the need of FOSS tools to create FOSS very
early on, and contributed decisively to tools like emacs and gcc. Before
the advent of such tools, and others, it was quite normal for e.g. C
code to be written in such a way that only a proprietary compiler would
be able to deal with it. Happily for software developers, those days are
long gone. Is such a state of affairs acknowledged as desirable by
OSHWA, and is OSHWA willing to be more than a spectator in this regard?

Taking a strong stand may have economic consequences. I am not thinking
about economic contributions to the development of FOSS CAD tools. FSF
itself contributes very little to FOSS development. I am rather thinking
about things like potential loss of sponsorship opportunities for e.g.
the Open Hardware Summit.

A similar argument applies to some of the bigger companies which are
championing the OSHW movement. I would be surprised if they don't have
big reductions, or even a complete waiver, of licensing fees for the
proprietary software they use for designing PCBs. That's what I would do
in any case if I were selling those tools. These companies have a big
indirect effect on what tools thrive in OSHW, because many people
download their designs to study them and modify them. Proprietary tools
can afford to lose some licence money with them and more than make up
for it thanks to their trend-setting role.

I know my employer pays huge licensing fees for CAD software. There is
certainly an economic incentive to using FOSS. I'm working with others in
the cloud/server industry to move toward using FOSS tools for open hardware
designs. With my employer's CAD team, I'm hearing mostly resistance to
change, concern the tools can't actually complete the design and that is an
unacceptable risk.  I'm eager to work with anyone who has interest or ideas
on how to convince big companies FOSS is a viable alternative.

This is all very legitimate, of course. I, as an individual, have
complete freedom to vote with my wallet, by deciding what to do with my
OSHWA membership or where to buy OSHW. For instance, I think Olimex is
really showing a nice example by designing all their hardware with KiCad
now, including their new laptop! [2] And I am sure I will get one in the
near future. When Olimex decided to migrate from Eagle to KiCad, they
wrote a short post explaining their intent [3]. This is very valuable to
me as an OSHW advocate and as a potential client, because it allows me
to clearly know what it is I am supporting when taking decisions,
financial or otherwise.

I guess I don't need to revisit the old Free vs Free debate here. Recent
events in the proprietary EDA world illustrate the risks of proprietary
free-as-in-beer perfectly. In that respect, I would like to praise the
efforts of Phillip and others on trying to convince proprietary
companies to go open-source or at least have a publicly documented set
of file formats. I am sure those initiatives would have more chances of
success if there were a clear stand from OSHWA and the backing of its
members and friends, including OSHW companies.

Again, I think all positions are legitimate and respectable, but I think
it would be very interesting to spell them out and discuss them
publicly. Thanks for reading this far!



[1] https://www.oshwa.org/sharing-best-practices/
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