Why Not a Little Open?

If you look around at the world of hardware, there is one thing that is immediately obvious. The open hardware is shit compared to the closed hardware. In terms of industrial design, battery life, price, and just about every category other than openness, the closed devices are superior. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way, and the electronics manufacturers would actually stand to make much more money if they bucked the trend.

Take for example the Nintendo DS vs. something like the Pandora. The Pandora is really no comparison. Just looking at it makes me shudder it’s so hideous. There’s little incentive to actually develop anything for it since nobody owns one. Hooray, you made a game for the Pandora that nobody will ever play.

Meanwhile, the Nintendo DS is a closed system. Nintendo will only give you a dev kit if they approve you, and you pay them money. Then you can only release your game if they approve of that. This hasn’t stopped people from reverse engineering it and homebrewing the heck out of it. There is more homebrew action going on the DS than on even the most popular open systems out there. The incentives of developing for such a widely used well designed system make with worth the hassle of hacking and reverse engineering it.

The same is true for almost all consumer electronics. We have a bunch of open devices that suck and don’t really work, and we have awesome closed devices that we have a hard time pushing beyond their limitations. What would happen if one of the companies making closed devices would just cave and open it up?

Actually, this has happened. Do you remember the Linksys WRT54G router? I don’t have sales figures, but it’s obviously one of, if not the, best selling routers of all time. Because of the GPL, Cisco was forced to open the source code of the firmware for early versions of the router. The result is that a huge community sprung up of people buying this router and flashing it with firmware that added a ton more features. This obviously helped their sales by a ton, so why did they change the software in later versions and keep their future routers closed? If they had kept their routers open, Netgear, D-Link, and everyone else would have no chance of competing unless they opened up as well.

Now, depending on the device, going completely open can pose problems. Sometimes it can allow software piracy, like with the iPhone or DS. Sometimes it can allow media piracy, such as with an open source Blu-Ray player. But even in those cases, an official dev kit that anyone can buy will not help piracy that much.

Even with completely closed Blu-Ray players, the whole system is already cracked wide open. Pirates are pirating, and will continue to pirate. Little to nothing can be done to change the rate of piracy. Yet, imagine if Sony made one particular model of Blu-Ray player that was open. Without marketing it heavily, they just had a page on their site with documentation and development tools for the player. Maybe they even discreetly sell a dev kit for a token fee. That will almost immediately become the #1 Blu-Ray player, and no other will be able compete with it.

Imagine if Nintendo discreetly sold official DS flash cartridges with a development kit. They would make a ton of money since all those dollars spent on R4 cards would be in Nintendo’s wallet. Piracy of DS games is rampant and unstoppable anyway, this would at least give more money to Nintendo instead of the people who make the R4.

Of course, this will never happen. These big old companies are set in their ways, and there is pretty much zero chance they will be smart enough to do something like this. They are too stubborn and old fashioned.

That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. I’m calling out all the people who make open hardware to change their ways. Instead of making something like Pandora, make a product with a consumer focus. If you design for developers, you’ll only get developers buying it. Be like a real company and focus completely on consumer sales. Just while you’re at it, make the device open and make development tools available or for sale. Don’t heavily promote the openness, promote the device itself. By keeping the openness quiet you won’t scare anyone away, and you’ll grow a sleeper hit from the underground. Think of it as Linksys router on purpose.

Imagine yourself right now trying to buy something like, oh, a television. There are so many to choose from in different sizes with different specs. But one feature that no television has is openness. Imagine if there was just one model of television that had a dev kit available on some page of the¬†manufacturer’s¬†web site. They didn’t promote it or draw attention to it, but they had it there. Would that not immediately become the most popular television? Of course it would. It would be the obvious choice of almost every nerd. After the nerds got done with it, it would become the obvious choice of non-nerds as well.

If you are a consumer electronics manufacturer, please make your stuff open. It’s in the best interest of your company and your customers. Throw away your old ways of thinking. Just do it. Just try it on one model. If it doesn’t work, cancel it. At least try. What’s the worst that can happen? It sells the same as it would have sold if it were closed? That’s not likely.

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One Response to Why Not a Little Open?

  1. SuperPichu says:

    I have to disagree on one point, the Android handsets have almost all the functionality of the iPhone. Granted the hardware itself isn’t open, but you can get the sdk for free from Google. By the way Android has gotten a lot better than it was when you talked about it with Conrad. For instance this was posted entirely from my Droid in less than 10 minutes.

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