The Open-PC: one step closer to open-hardware

The Open-PC: one step closer to open-hardware


At the Gran Canaria Open Desktop Summit in July 2009, the Open-PC project was announced. The statement said the project aimed to "cooperatively design a Free Software based computer by and for the community". Further this PC would use only hardware for which there are free software drivers available. This would be a PC with the minimal compromise required for running a free desktop. In January 2010 the project announced the launch of its first product.

Following the announcements appearance on several tech news sites, many commentators were quick to point out its flaws: over-hyped, over-priced (359 Euro), low-spec (Atom/3GB/160GB/Intel Graphics) were among the more popular superlatives I saw. Some also questioned whether such a PC was even necessary. In the days when you can buy a laptop for about the same and given the Open-PC doesn't even come with a monitor it would seem the pitch of the machine is slightly off-kilter.

The major design decisions and also things like price and recovery media have been made collectively via on-line polls

But I think the detractors may have missed the point slightly. This PC is not from a manufacturer looking to cash in on free software and run when the revenue starts picking up (Hello Asus). It's also not from a big name looking to satisfy some of its more-extreme customer base with a bit of tokenism (Hello Dell). This is a community project set up because parts of "the community" got fed up with having to compromise their free desktops with non-free drivers. It's also an experiment in community-driven hardware. The major design decisions for this project and also things like price, the level of online integration, recovery media etc. have been made collectively via on-line polls.

This is not the first such hardware project, see The Open Graphics Project for example, but Open-PC has the advantage at present of using off-the-shelf hardware for which free drivers are available rather than trying to build open hardware. Never-the-less for it to go from concept to product in 6 months is pretty remarkable. I doubt this will be the last such project either and regardless of what happens now, I think the project can declare itself a success. It strikes me that if the aim of the project were to sell hardware (that is to satisfy shareholders) then the detractors would have a point but given the aim is more philosophical I feel that even if it doesn't sell it will be difficult to brand the project a failure as it has already done that which is set out to do - produce a machine. As far as projects like OGP go, I am sure that as soon as such open hardware is produced in significant numbers, it will be snapped up by projects like the Open-PC. OpenBIOS is another project with laudable aims which I am sure will feature in this roadmap of free hardware.

From Open-PC to "Makers"

Looking around the project's website I had feeling of deja-vu. I recently read Cory Doctorow's novel, "Makers". Doctorow may be known to some you as a very vocal supporter of freedom. This includes the realms of the creative arts (all his writing is available under Creative Commons) and software (he recently switched from Mac to GNU/Linux). In this novel he takes a glance into the near-future and looks at how the principles of free software and Creative Commons could overflow into things like hardware. The titular makers produce everything from theme park rides to bicycles and computer hardware using open hardware specs. The various creations are interconnected so that they feed modifications back into each other. The result is machines that mimic the way free software works. Patches are submitted, downloaded and applied. In Makers, hardware designs are downloaded by 3D printers which then "print" the components to be assembled by robots. The rides download how other rides have been modded and adapt themselves overnight via robots. The concept is one of ever-evolving hardware as well as software.

Maybe I am a being optimistic again but I can see a pathway from the Open-PC to the devices described in makers. Okay perhaps a PC that rebuilds itself overnight is a little way off yet, and it may be a little too Skynet-like for some. But a PC built on open specs which are "patched" and adapted to suit the changing needs seems more likely. Right now millions of people across the world already update (as opposed to just patch) their free software using simple tools that connect to a central repository or one of its mirrors. Is it that much further to imagine a case where open hardware can be adapted using similar ideas to those expressed in Makers? Imagine a PC where each component can be replaced by another "printed" from open designs. Too pie in the sky for you? Here in the UK there is a saying "Death by committee". I used to agree with that: committee decisions often take too long to get anything real done. Free software has changed that view. Open-PC has proven it to be wrong in another arena. Even if it starts with just building the original components, open and free hardware designs like OGP, OpenBIOS and Open-PC could revolutionise the PC market.

Yes the existing hardware manufacturers won't feel threatened by the Open-PC but neither did the software houses in 1983 or 1991. The hardware shops may not also be running to embrace this new freedom in hardware but it's early days. There's a good possibility that collaborative, free (as in freedom) and open hardware will be on the increase in the future and manufacturers are already using free software to help their bottom line. Once free hardware becomes more of a reality it won't take them long to jump on that bandwagon either. Where will the money be? It will be in selling pre-assembled components to end-users, just as it is now. Except these components will be based on free designs. Not every PC maker will have the resources or inclination to produce their own components so others will do it for them, adapting and tweaking the basic kit. Just as standard interfaces are used by a plethora of cards today.

Yes the Open-PC project may have caused a bit more fuss than seems necessary. Yes it might be over-priced compared to proprietary counterparts but it matters little. They've proved it can be done and my hat is off to them. It's worth noting that one of their surveys asked if the respondents (about 4700 of them) would buy the PC. 42% said "yes", 52% said they weren't sure, 6% said "no". Another question asked If they would recommend it to friends and family. 77% said "yes", 21% said they were not sure, just 1% said "no". Regardless of whether those answers are followed through they indicate something else -- belief. People believe in this project. There's a inertia around the ideas involved. That tells me that they won't go away.

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Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.