Open Source Hardware

An important part of the Free Telephony Project is the idea of “open hardware”. The hardware designs that are being developed are being placed in the public domain under the GPL.

As a business model, it’s a bit of an experiment.

The technology being developed has very strong business possibilities – for example the ability to build a powerful IP-PBX for a couple of hundred dollars, much less than current IP-PBXes and even less than a low end analog PBX.

I have had to fend off several corporate dudes who wanted me to join them in ventures to make lots of money. It’s hard to turn them down but as I was not interested in “closing” the hardware they ran away fast. This makes sense if you want to build a large business, you need “secret sauce”. In other words: Intellectual Property (IP).

What I would really like is some sponsors for my work who can work with the open hardware concept, but so far they all want to lock up the IP. Which of course is the right thing to do if you want to make lots of money.

This has made me think through the concept of open hardware:

  1. I think open software has been a good thing for the world, so I think open hardware is also good.
  2. If closed IP makes a small amount of people a lot of money – does opening the IP make a moderate amount of money for a large amount of people? The latter seems a better outcome to me. It also suggests that open hardware benefits small companies more than large ones.
  3. I think the specific benefit of open hardware is lower R&D costs. This is what is happening with my project – there is a small team of people designing DSP boards, BRI-ISDN hardware, doing Asterisk ports etc. So far I would estimate about 5 man-years of hardware R&D I now have available for free. If I like I can now re-use this open hardware in my local market, potentially without hurting the business of my co-developers. There is a spirit of cooperation rather than competition.
  4. A common perception is that “if the hardware design is open, people will just copy it and put you out of business”. Well after some thought I disagree. A business is much more than just the product design – for example you need support, capital, manufacture, service, and relationships with customers. So even if the whole design is open, you can still build a nice little business (but perhaps not a $100M business). You can also add proprietary components and build on the open technology, or focus on your local market.
  5. My pet favourite – open hardware allows us to invent new business models, for example developing countries could build advanced telephone systems for cost price. This is so much better than buying technology from a first-world profit-oriented business that must charge a 70% mark up to cover their overheads. This is the business model behind the one laptop per child project. A $100 laptop is possible if u remove the overheads, use community input and sponsership for R&D and build volume. Well a $100 IP-PBX is also possible. Another benefit is that the hardware can be built locally (remember the hardware design is free) overcoming import tariff problems and building local industry. Combining these elements means lots of people getting connected cheaply. And that is a very good thing for the world.


I have had some great discussions on this topic with Rich Bodo. He has coined the phrase Intellectual Antiproperty on his blog.
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15 thoughts on “Open Source Hardware”

  1. It’s great to see someone with a sense of ethics and who likes to take a stand. A lot of people have the ethics tucked away inside, but don’t have the resolve to do something with it.

    One thing I have always said is that business is first and foremost about relationships. Much like the living economy principles, you’re notion that you can build a sustainable business that works is spot on. The living economy concept calls that a “living return” and not a maximum return.

    I came across a great site that explains all that. Very interesting and it works with a lot of related issues, like localized farming and rural development that I am interested in. Anyway, here’s a link to check it out:

    Great blog by the way.

  2. Only unique people like you are really up on making a revolution that make the difference in our world, and I am fully behind supporting this Intellectual Antiproperty while feeling it’s part of my ethics to be part of an innovation that made the open hardware and software simply one concept, one word, one community, and alike.

  3. i just read your LJ article, great read. IBM had a one time open hardware
    platform also. It was in 1982 called the IBM PC. it developed some
    further businesses (Microsoft is one).
    I am interested in single t1e1j1 interfacing to attach older channelbanks
    to asterisk for home and small business use. Thanks for open thinking

  4. Alas, hardware is not as modular and compartmentalized as software. Maybe it’s that ten-year delay again, but “spaghetti hardware” is as prevalent as spaghetti code used to be.

  5. Hi David

    I would like to join to PR1 project.But I dont know , if BlackFin has enough power to handle VOIP functions for 30 channels?
    Have you got any MIPS measuremant for individual functions (e.g VOCODER, Echo canceller,VAD,CNG,Fax relay, Caller ID,conference,…) in BlackFin?
    Maybe we need more than one BlackFin for processing all of the necessary functions of E1 IP-PBX?

    with best regards


  6. Hi Kazem,

    The PR1 team are looking at the MIPs question right now. Please contact them via the email addresses on the PR1 page. The current feeling is that a co-processor of some sort will be required to handle 30 channels of echo cancellation. This could either be an off the shelf (closed) chip like Octasic, or Oslec running on another Blackfin.

    Re MIPs echo can is the greatest at perhaps 5-20 MIPs/ch, G729 can run on 8 MIPs/ch, all the other stuff is trivial.

    – David

  7. I believe the open hardware is a great iniciative, as it will lower the prices of usefull things for people education, information level, health, etc.

  8. Hi David!
    I am from viet nam. I want to make my own IP Phone. Please help me! can you give me some ideas or you can sell your ip phone designs. I use it for my own purpose not commerce.
    please send me your answer soon.

  9. This is the future. I believe that there will be a day when no decent designer would want anything other than full access to hardware and software, and to have a community on her side to build the products. We’re about to leave behind the dark ages, and after a while, no-one will miss the old days. It’s a beginning and on-going transition.

  10. Hello,
    In the past (long long ago) you could phone up Motorola, TI, Harris, Xilinux, Crystal, …. and they would send you “books” on their asembler language,…,data sheets, interface examples, with schematics,… the whole schkebang !
    Now ? they all (most) dropped out and opted for the Blackbox. -but don’t get me wrong, Its a god send when people like David Rowe and others want to help out the OpenHardware but 2 things still irk me.

    1./ If you’re making “chips” AND want to sell them why don’t ALL these hardware manufacturees show you how to “use” them ?
    Answer: monopolization fueled by greed and it ain’t goin’ away people.

    2./ I watched that video by David on “” specifically the “… wouldn’t people just copy my work…”
    the unacceptable answer was “…it is just not done…”
    -you now made it infinitely easier for a large corp with money to copy and mass produce your product -of course they will copy it and give you nuhin’ -duh !!! I really don’t think that was covered by David, was it ?

    Most young engineers/technologists/… especially these days don’t have the 30 years experience and lets face it -the MONEY you guys have accumulated. Or mostly who is gonna fund them ?
    Life is very easy, especially if you really don’t have to work anymore.
    Nope, I haven’t met anyone in the engineering field during all our earlier years that had the time/money/… to even do this, infact, I know one fella who did and got fired !

    I could give you a couple of my own “simple” examples where in my early job interviews they wanted me to show them my DSP-based designs. I didn’t, and so, I didn’t get the jobs. I even brought it with me to the interview,
    A card-cage the size of a toaster with all 963 wire-wraps.
    :) -that was in 1992/93 ?, anyway, a Blackfin could obvisouly replace the whole-thing today.
    Meanwhile, that DSP graduate project of mine had cost me over $1000.00, and a year of midnight shifts. I did it to get as high a paying job as possible. -I was a broke student.

    I seriously doubt much has changed since then, in fact, engineering jobs are even harder to get for a lot of young graduates today.
    So OpenHardware is what it was in 2000, -a “niche” area for the hobbyist, and the rich and playful. Or, you are being funded, just like a salaried teacher, to “give” that knowledge away.



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