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Open Source Hardware/Software dilemma
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Open Source Hardware/Software dilemma

by gfwilliams on Tue Aug 13, 2013 1:52 pm

Hi!

I'm not sure if this is quite the right place to post - but I saw the excellent article here: http://www.ladyada.net/library/openhard ... cense.html and it directed me to the forums if I had any questions...

So I'm approaching this from a different angle - as someone who wants to make a living producing (hopefully open) Software for Open Hardware.

I've developed some software for microcontrollers - an interpreter that makes them a lot easier to program. In the interests of not spamming the forum I won't say which one it is. Ideally - as I guess many people here would like - I'd love to be able to do this full-time and continue to improve it - which means making some money so I don't starve.

The software could work on many different kinds of MCUs, and it makes a massive amount of sense to Open Source it so that everyone can experiment with it, add to it, and port it to new platforms. It'd be ideal if it was sold pre-installed on some devices, and if a small fraction of the profit went towards helping me improve it.

I tried asking for donations for a while too, hoping to Open Source if that worked out, but... nothing. Currently it's closed source but I give it away for free, with one feature that you only get when you register - it's not ideal.

The problem is I spent months e-mailing everyone I could think of, and nobody will give it a chance. Of the replies I did get the answer was simply: "We sell Open Hardware, so we want Open Software. However if it's Open, our competitors don't have to pay you anything, so why should we?"

So the other solution - the one mentioned on the link above - is to Trademark the name. But I don't see that working for me - I'm not that well-known, and if someone does a KickStarter called FooBar that runs the BarFoo scripting language - well, it doesn't matter that they don't mention my interpreter's name because BarFoo is a well-known language anyway.

The Pinnoccio guys are a good example. They had a successful KickStarter, and they're using Bitlash. They seem like awesome guys, and I'm sure they'll contribute a lot of improvements back, however if the creator of Bitlash had actually wanted to be paid for his hard work I guess he's out of luck. They're not being evil - they're just using Open Source software. Same with Electric Imp and Squirrel. I don't know if either of the creators get royalties but I seriously doubt it.

I don't think there's anything evil about what I want to do, I've Open Sourced a previous interpreter and I haven't made anything from it. I've just put an immense amount of work (almost a year full-time now) into this one, and into writing tutorials, documentation and supporting my users. I can't keep doing it at this level for free and I don't think it's in anyone's best interests if I stop. Very few other people will want to do the boring non-fun bits of supporting it, or to buy 10 different dev boards and test on each one when they make a change.

I've spoken to so many people and nobody seems to have a really good suggestion yet. The best so far are "Open Source most of it, and then make the bits needed to put it on a board CC BY-NC-SA" or "Open Source most of it, then keep some of the more exciting features closed source", but most pretty much boil down to "Open Source it, Get a real job, spend your weekends working on it".

Currently the only sensible option seems to be to just develop and sell my own board which contains it, which I'll make Open Hardware. However I'll keep the software closed or CC BY-NC-SA so that I can negotiate some kind of royalty payment if others want to sell products with it. It's still not a great situation for all the other boards it could run on as I'm obviously going to devote more time to the board that I'm selling.

I'm pretty gutted - I really want to Open Source it (I get requests every week), but I also want to be able to afford to do all the cool stuff I have planned. I totally get Open Source Hardware and why/how it works, and I see how Open Source software works well when big companies use it - I just don't see how it can work in my case.

Sorry for the massive post - just wanted to try and explain my problem properly.

Does anyone have any other suggestions for how to make a business around this while being Open Source? I guess you might have some experience with this kind of thing?

gfwilliams
 
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Re: Open Source Hardware/Software dilemma

by adafruit on Tue Aug 13, 2013 4:10 pm

thanks for posting up. ladyada has one of the best talks on why do open source hardware (and software) -

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ca1dbM582Sc

nothing is going to be instant, no one is going to give you any 100% for-sure business plan for an open or closed source company. adafruit has been open source from the start and until recently it was based out of an apartment, limor (and phil, me) had other jobs while we worked on adafruit to get it to a place where we could hire more people, we are up to about 57+ people now. building a great community of people who want contribute to your efforts and cause is something worth pursing. the best results i've seen is when makers focus on making more and the best code/hardware, there are some protections like trademark, patent, copyright for some things - but in the end, doing great work and release great products is where you'll find the most rewards. i can tell you from watching and writing about dozens of maker companies and ones that do open source, it's all possible, but no one is going to give you the answers, you'll have great opportunities and answers by working, by putting more value out in the world and by creating communities that support you.

feel free to stop by our weekly show, ask an engineer, and ask this so we can answer it live. also, here is a quick overview from the show about the pick and place we just donated (i talked about how we grew the company).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?list=UUpOl ... page&t=569

hope this helps and maybe we can chat soon on our show!

adafruit
 
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Re: Open Source Hardware/Software dilemma

by gfwilliams on Wed Aug 14, 2013 5:04 am

Thanks for the reply, I checked out the videos but I'm not sure if they really answer my question. I can ask on ask an engineer but I think it's a bit difficult to explain in a sentence in a chat window!

There's a pretty clear path to making a business from OSH - you make it, and sell it. But with OSS it's difficult.

I'm not after a 100% for sure business plan - but any business plan at all that involved OSS would be nice! Everything seems to boil down to giving the software away and then making money doing something else.

If I were being a good business person, I should probably just save the trouble of supporting a 50,000 line piece of software (and its users), throw it away, and make and sell OSHW Arduino LED shields instead :)

I know it seems I have a bit of a downer on this, but I've actually worked in OSS for a few years (being paid by a big company) and it was awesome. When I've Open Sourced my software projects before they've been used quite a bit, but if I'm honest they've actually been a disaster - support has sucked up time, trolls have made me feel bad, and well-meaning folks have done things that have undermined other software I was trying to sell. So after those experiences I want to try and avoid some of those problems if at all possible.

gfwilliams
 
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Re: Open Source Hardware/Software dilemma

by adafruit_support_rick on Wed Aug 14, 2013 11:36 am

To be perfectly honest, I don't think I can see a way to build a business on OSS alone. If you've already got a business, like the big company you worked for, then there are ways you can leverage it. But starting from scratch? I just can't see it.

A better approach in your particular case would be to try to leverage your code base into building a contracting business. Technically, you're not selling the software, your selling the service of building a custom system based upon it. You can still release it as open source - your value-added proposition is that you know how to do cool things with it.

As for trolls and support and well-meaning "enhancers", you can absolutely feel free to ignore them completely. The reason it's open source is so that those people can do whatever they want with it, and that includes figuring out how it works and fixing bugs by themselves.

You can always maintain your own version that works and hasn't been undermined, and you can also pick and choose to adopt any useful improvements as they appear. All of which adds value to your contracting services, since you can represent your code base as the One True controlled and reliable version.

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Re: Open Source Hardware/Software dilemma

by gfwilliams on Wed Aug 14, 2013 2:13 pm

Thanks for your honest reply... It's a bit sad to hear though.

The interpreter is really geared up for makers - I don't think enough companies would use it for me to survive on contract work!

I guess selling a device with it on is still the way forward, and I'll have to see what I can do on the OSS front. It seems like a very scary path to tread if the only thing that makes my device better than other cheaper ones is the software, and that can be used completely free (and probably ported overnight) by other board manufacturers who don't have the overhead of maintaining it.

In that case, I think creating a great (software) product isn't actually enough.

Obviously there's the trademark/etc but it seems a little hypocritical to say it's open and then to use trademarks as a way to get some control back. I'd really just like to be honest and say 'we'd love you to play with this, do what you want - but if you want to profit from our work, please contribute something back so we can keep doing what we love' - but it seems that's somehow completely unacceptable.

gfwilliams
 
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Re: Open Source Hardware/Software dilemma

by adafruit_support_bill on Wed Aug 14, 2013 2:27 pm

It seems like a very scary path to tread if the only thing that makes my device better than other cheaper ones is the software, and that can be used completely free (and probably ported overnight) by other board manufacturers who don't have the overhead of maintaining it.

It's not just the software. There is value in the support - especially if you are marketing to the makers. Those that will undercut you on price will not be supporting their product. And you are not obligated to support it for them. There will always be the ones who shop for best price then come to for support when they can't get it from their vendor. But if you have a good product with good support, you will build a loyal customer base.

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Re: Open Source Hardware/Software dilemma

by gfwilliams on Wed Aug 14, 2013 3:02 pm

Thanks, that's a really good point. I guess it can be hard to tell at times though but hopefully it is more the threat of no support than actually carrying it out!

All the tutorials can use my own board as well, which is obviously a big help for beginners.

gfwilliams
 
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Re: Open Source Hardware/Software dilemma

by gfwilliams on Wed Aug 28, 2013 3:30 am

Hi, I just wanted to say that I've taken the plunge and have started a KickStarter - with all source files to be released Open Source when it completes:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/486 ... for-things

I'd love to know what you think of it - I'm hoping it should be a really good tool for beginners/tinkerers...

gfwilliams
 
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Re: Open Source Hardware/Software dilemma

by adafruit_support_bill on Wed Aug 28, 2013 6:53 am

Nice looking board there. And a nice looking programming screen too.
(I have a love/hate relationship with graphical programming environments - having done a few myself.)

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