The evolution in bicycle design is testimony to what this can do for the greater good

What if you wanted to control your sprinkler while sitting in office, or enable your feature-rich surveillance camera at home to authenticate visitors on your behalf?

While embedded electronic circuits might do the job for you, purchasing these electronic rigs is next to impossible because of the high level of customisation that is required. If all you needed was the software, the freedom provided by Free and Open Source software may have been good enough.

But when embedded electronics have to be used, similar modifiable hardware platforms are needed. Electronic hardware that guarantees freedom to its users, to add or delete, or modify not lines of code but interfaced devices, circuit components, or even the design of the board itself is termed open hardware.

To popularise the idea of open hardware, the Digital Freedom Foundation celebrated the second Hardware Freedom Day on April 20.

The popular ones

Popular electronic hardware offering freedom to study, understand, modify and share the design are Arduino, the lesser-known Beagle Bone from Texas Instruments, and the not-so-open hardware project, Raspberry Pi. While Arduino is a low-cost embedded controller board, Beagle Bone and Raspberry Pi are credit card-sized boards that can function as full-fledged computers.

What do you do with freedom in hardware?

The evolution in bicycle design stands testimony to the wonders that open design in hardware can do for the greater good. The evolution of motorcycles and even cars has been based on modification for the purpose of customisation.

But when it comes to electronics, owing to the complexity involved in the fabrication process, the notion of restricted design, which does not allow much for modifications, has been the norm. The silicon boards of your music player, smartphones, or laptops are all designed to discourage modifications by users.

When building electronic gadgets, a designer cannot restrict himself to playing around with the software that runs on top of rigid hardware; the fun and scope for applications is much less, argues Aravind, an electronics hobbyist and a research assistant at the Indian Institute of Science.

“The enormous possibilities that open hardware offer is simply wonderful when attempting solutions for new and unexplored problems,” says Aravind.

Want a slice of Pi?

Raspberry Pi, projected as the low cost, credit card sized computer (just 3.3×2.2 square inches) is available at Rs. 3,500 in India. With options to interface with a monitor on the HDMI port, keyboard on USB and networking on Ethernet port, this ARM 11-powered minicomputer can run ARM Research Operating System (AROS), Linux-based distributions such as Debian, Archlinux, and even Android off an SD card. Raspberry Pi Foundation is attempting to build a community of hackers who can work on Pi as a platform to enable low-cost learning.

Not that rosy

But, all is not rosy with Raspberry Pi. It has faced criticism from the open source communities for endorsing the ARM 11-based Broadcom chipset. Critics have found fault with the chipset because it does not come with complete documentation, which is guaranteed in the case of Open Hardware. In fact, many developers do not include Raspberry Pi within the ambit of Open Hardware.

Beagle Bone

The other board which fulfils all criteria is Beagle Bone, which costs Rs. 6,000. It is powered by the ARM Cortex A8 controller and offers significant performance improvement over Pi and comes with the entire documentation: schematics, bill of materials, manufacturing files and system reference manuals.

Arduino, Raspberry Pi and Beagle Bone, all are favoured by hobbyists.

But what about the prospects of making products out of the open hardware idea? This is important because unless there is a significant presence in the market as products, the very notion of open hardware would not have any substantial society-wide impact.

The future

“The future for hardware freedom could be compared with analogy of GNU (GNU Not Unix) and the Linux projects. When they started off, they were for hobbyists and developers. Even today, although they might not have a substantial direct market share, their influence in the way the world perceives software is unmistakably remarkable,” argues Ashfaq Husaain Farooqui, a hardware freedom believer, who is organising Hardware Freedom Day in Bangalore.

Projects such as the 3D printer Makerbot are not only an open hardware project, but also a full-fledged product. The idea of open phones and open plug servers might be the product ideas that might cement the role of open hardware in the days to come.

On the second Hardware Freedom Day, developers across the world are more than happy to hack the hardware, even if it is the hard way.