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Hardware Can Be Open, Too

Open Ideas to Open Source: Hacking Hardware

  • September 20, 2007
  • By Matt Hartley

With open source software becoming a household name, another open source movement that may one day see some fanfare is already taking shape. Open source hardware, which I once thought to be little more than a pipe dream left over from a bygone era, is proving to be a dream that it is very much alive and growing.

As an example of this trend, MAKE magazine has managed to regenerate a previously static culture of do-it-yourselfers at a feverish pace.

By sharing simple-to-follow schematics and how-tos on a variety of user-created projects, people from all over the world have discovered that open source, as a concept, goes a lot deeper than just software development. These open-minded individuals have learned that open source hardware is also a viable idea that could begin to generate an industry all its own.

One of the most daring developments within open source hardware world is start-up companies that provide base-level hardware devices, complete with schematics to hack or alter them to meet users' needs.

An example is Chumby, the friendly household Internet appliance. Chumby is a concept based on the belief that some people out there would be thrilled to have access to the Internet without the need for more traditional devices. Chumby provides the end user a unique means of accessing online maps, tracking auctions--nearly anything you might want from the Internet. For about $200, this widget-using Net appliance provides you with all the Internet you'd ever want, even from the strangest locations.

What makes Chumby different from any other Internet appliance running created widgets is that it allows users themselves to create widgets to further extend Chumby's functionality. Once Chumby has been connected to a LAN, it uses a user-defined 'widget playlist' as an interactive view screen. It's something like you might find with Apple's Dashboard feature in OS X, but on a less powerful computing appliance.

Going deeper still into the geekier side of open source hardware brings us to the Daisy MP3 project, which is supported by MAKE.

Unlike the more consumer-friendly Chumby, Daisy opens itself up to new revenue possibilities by allowing the builder the opportunity to build the device into a customized appliance. Even though this is not likely the goal of the project itself, it does present the possibility of customized MP3 players for a variety of enterprise applications. Entrepreneurs would likely start out by targeting industries that need access to a low cost, custom-built music player than can be implemented to users' specs.

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