Open source hardware holds the same promise as software

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I see SparkFun Electronics mentioned often in my social media stream, so I jumped at the chance to interview Chris Clark, the company's Director of Information Technology.

From their website: SparkFun is an online retail store that sells the bits and pieces to make your electronics projects possible. Our ever-growing product catalog boasts over 3,500 components and widgets designed to help you unleash your inner inventor... Through our Department of Education, SparkFun offers classes and online tutorials designed to help educate individuals in the wonderful world of embedded electronics... We believe an open market is a healthy market and we open source all of our product designs. SparkFun subscribes to the belief that open source tech encourages innovation and creativity, while helping empower individuals to build the projects they want.

In this interview with Chris

, I asked some pressing questions about who is and isn't embracing open source hardware and how SparkFun is educating the masses in a new way. Plus, hear about the power of open source from SparkFun's CEO Nathan Seidle, who recently presented at TEDx Boulder. And, read more from Chris on about how open source has helped SparkFun succeed.

How did you first get into open source?

For me personally, way back when I was twelve I did some volunteer work at my Dad's office—a spectroscopy research lab at the US Geological Survey. Systems were varying flavors of Unix, primarily Solaris, all running X Windows. This was my first taste of an open source platform, and while I continued to pay some attention to that world, it all seemed a bit out of my reach. I first got into programming in middle school by writing BASIC programs on my TI-82 instead of paying attention in class. In high school, by way of Usenet, I began to find whole caches of free open source programs for all variants of TI graphing calculators (by then I had a couple of others) in both BASIC and assembly. Then, in my senior year economics class, we were looking at stock market trends when the instructor drew our attention to this upstart that was making some big waves—some mysterious new company called Red Hat. "I've heard of them!," I exclaimed. Then, I proceeded to educate the class on what bits I knew about open source operating systems. It was the prod I needed to jump back into that world, and I've been there ever since.

For SparkFun, the company was truly open source from the get-go. It started in 2003 with a dual purpose: provide a trustworthy e-commerce experience for buying unique components from manufacturers who had never heard of e-commerce and, as a bonus, provide a platform where Nate and his other friends pursuing their electrical engineering degrees could sell their personal designs. For those designed items, breakout boards and the like, proprietary was never a consideration. Most designs were quickly prototyped and iterated upon continuously. Freely providing the source for firmware and design files was both a necessity for end users to understand and use the products in their own projects but also an invitation to help improve the products for themselves and future customers. It's as if SparkFun is a fish and open source is the water in which it was born and has always lived.

If more companies embraced open source hardware, would that have an overall positive effect on the quantity and quality of new electronic devices being produced?

Long term: yes. Open source is a game you play for long-term gains across the board, not for short-term profits. The entire Internet is still greatly benefiting from open source innovations from the earliest days of Unix back in the 70s. If more companies embraced open source hardware today then solutions to common hardware problems that are objectively optimal (rather than tuned for generous margins) can saturate the community. This becomes the rising mountain on which new startups can stand to reach greater advancements—and one they can capitalize on for free.

Open source hardware holds the same promise as open source software: solve the most critical and common problems in the open where that solution can be shared and refined, freeing up cycles to focus on the more nuanced problems—until those become so common, widespread, and elegantly solved in the open that they become commoditized too. Rinse and repeat over years and generations and, overall, the quantities and qualities of new electronic devices are elevated.

Do you think schools and public libraries have a duty to inform the public about the benefits of open source software and open source hardware as an extension of their existing mission to maximize the distribution of knowledge? If there is such a duty, are these institutions living up to fulfilling such a duty?

Schools and public libraries absolutely have a duty to inform the public about the benefits of open source. Open source is grounded in the same principle that schools and libraries espouse: that information should be freely accessible. In general such institutions are not particularly aware of the open source world, largely due to its rapidly changing nature and the inherent difficulty such institutions have in adapting to rapid change. It would be unfair to lambaste American public school and public library systems for falling short here; open source technology can be technically challenging and is only one niche in the vast world of information they must support. At SparkFun we're seeing that as less of a crisis and more of an opportunity. With a team dedicated to education we often work with public schools and libraries to guide understanding and support intelligent choices in what aspects of open source software and hardware to adopt and proliferate.

What states or countries are the largest purchasers of SparkFun products and would you say those geographical regions have a greater tinkering culture?

SparkFun's sales by region track pretty closely to population centers, at least in the United States. New York, California, Florida, and Texas join Colorado to round out the top five states. Colorado's a given, simply because it's our backyard and it's just easiest to get the word out in our immediate neighborhood. It could be argued that the tinkering cultures are generally more concentrated in and near larger cities, and this makes sense. Lone tinkerers are everywhere, but exposure to the universe of invention is what draws new people into the fray, and we generally see more hacker spaces and other supportive resources near those dense population centers. Globally, since SparkFun is still only in English, we see our greatest impact across Canada, Europe, and Australia; though East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea definitely have an appetite. Again it's a combination of dense population centers with supportive resources and middle classes with the means to jump in that helps the tinkering culture transition from a sparse array of lone inventors to a thriving community of passionate creators.

Why is it important to promote inclusion of women and minorities in maker culture?

Making is universal. It's just something humans do. A major component of our 20th century experience, however, was an upbringing with predetermined roles for genders and ethnic groups. Oftentimes those roles didn't favor certain groups exploring an innate interest in engineering or programming, and that's a deeply rooted problem that is taking generations to solve. Promoting inclusion of everyone in maker culture, with an emphasis on women and minorities (that have traditionally been discouraged), is vital to both keeping the movement true to its underlying principles and to keeping the influx of varied life experiences pushing the culture in creative new directions.

Any interesting stories of SparkFun products being used right in Boulder or nearby Denver?

There are quite a few, so here's a sampling spanning the age spectrum.

Starting with the WOW! Children's Museum in Lafayette, a place dedicated to the youngest children, there is a variety of exhibits powered by SparkFun gear, including: a wind tunnel, disco globe optics, interactive grocery scanners, trains, and a pirate ship. Up into high school the St. Vrain and Skyline High Schools nearby have begun crafting pilot programs teaching Arduino and microcontrollers using SparkFun Inventor's Kits. Warren Tech, a technical high school, is using our products in conjunction with NASA's HUNCH program to prototype experiments for zero-G aircraft. Finally, up at the college level, both the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Colorado are using Arduino boards supplied through SparkFun to control lasers for imaging mixing fluids and biological tissue.

Can you share some general information about the talk you’ll be giving at the All Things Open conference?

At the All Things Open Conference this October in Raleigh, I'll be discussing the process of Open Sourcing Hardware using GitHub. GitHub, an extremely popular platform for open sourcing software projects for collaborative development, appears on the surface like a natural fit for open sourcing a bevy of hardware products for community access, iteration, and refinement. In practice, however, tools designed for software don't necessarily translate into the physical world of printed circuit boards and components. I'll discuss how SparkFun open sourced hardware the easy (but limited) way right from that start and how we're trying to make the experience more conducive to community involvement using GitHub.


Read more from the All Things Open speaker interview series.

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Phil Shapiro has been an educator, teaching students from pre-school to graduate school for the past 35 years. He currently works at a public library in the Washington, DC area, helping youth and adults use their public Linux stations.

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