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Author Topic: Shaking my belief in open source hardware  (Read 1224 times)
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Central MN, USA
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Someone was asking how to use a proto-shield he/she bought online. Apparently no support or link is provided by the seller. It made me think: how fair open-source hardware is, to lots of people.

I took the time to find him tutorials and docs from sparkfun and adafruit apparently. That's what we all do. Here's part of my reply:

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Open-source hardware is a dream world for copy cats and knock-offs. They make money while someone else is making the design and supporting users, or even taking blames


I guess my question is: how do you cope with things like this, when original designers and distributors work hard to create design, contents, and actively support the product, while photo-copy cats press a button somewhere else to mass produce the open design and sell them for money, no support, not even mentioning original designer, non-existing support. Not even a link to A tutorial?

Here's where that fore-mentioned shield was purchased:
 
http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=160501996064&ssPageName=STRK:MEWNX:IT#ht_739wt_905

Who's doing the hard work and who is getting the profit? Doesn't that shake your belief in open source hardware, just a bit?

Update:

The ebay seller simply copied the texts from sparkfun website word for word:

http://www.sparkfun.com/products/7914
« Last Edit: March 06, 2011, 04:43:02 pm by liudr » Logged


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This is part of the bargain. Closed designs aren't immune from this, as we saw recently with the Teensy; depending on the complexity and popularity of your product, you may only be delaying the situation.

Rather than being upset about this, one should probably expect it; if you embrace the idea that you have a limited span of time before the replica market starts reproducing your widget, it forces you to continue innovating (there are a lot of parallels in software and fashion industries). They'll earn their pennies per board, while you reap the larger rewards of actually creating new value. But make no mistake: it requires you to be constantly moving. A single success is not a long-term strategy for viability. smiley

Off on a tangent: I actually see those low-ball sellers as doing a service to the community, in two ways.

First, they're providing the product at what is probably the absolute minimum cost it can be provided at: no support, high potential failure rate, but very low cost, which means those with less means can sacrifice support and quality and still be able to get involved in electronics. It lowers the barrier of entry.

Second, and more importantly: these sellers teach the very valuable lesson (if not on the first transaction, then after a few experiences) that support and quality can be worth paying extra for, depending on your circumstances.

In this particular case, the customer learned very quickly that their money had paid for a board, but that's it; they probably won't do that in the future, unless they're sure of what they're getting into. A valuable lesson. smiley-grin
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I like your second point but everyone else ended up providing the support for the lazy seller.

Say you are a casual designer, not a professional, you don't have all day for designs but you come up with a design anyway, made all effort it will be compatible with other hardware, electrically and mechanically, revised over and over, ended up with something nice and was only able to afford 50 units and took long to sell them and didn't make much money since cheap knock-offs with older designs are taking over the market, like a classic cheap car vs. expensive car scenario. As hobbyists buy those cheaper reproductions it's hard to sell your own design for even a decent price.

With how much time I put in my Phi-1 shield design and software support and money I made, it's not very promising even as a casual designer, although I've not heard one complaint on my design yet. Hope my next step is paying off my time. Not trying to make money this time either.

Will open source hardware worth your time designing? That becomes my question.
Not trying to be pessimistic on a Sunday afternoon  smiley-sweat
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nr Bundaberg, Australia
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I had a product on the market in the 90s, however with a PLA and, reasonable price, and a niche market I think it wasn't worth copying. Also in those days China wasn't as it is today.

These days I've pretty much decided that everything I do will be open source and I will not actively sell anything except perhaps the PCBs.

Fortunately I'm in the position where I don't need to make a living and anyway I find the most interesting part of a project is the initial design so I'm well happy to move on to the next thing.   

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Will open source hardware worth your time designing?
I don't know, my gut feeling is that it will be very hard to make a buck from designing hardware these days. But then I look at things like the Saleae logic analyser, I assume he's making money from that.

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Say you are a casual designer, not a professional
Then I suppose it doesn't matter much if you make money, as long as it doesn't cost you much and you enjoy the process.

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Rob Gray aka the GRAYnomad www.robgray.com

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everyone else ended up providing the support for the lazy seller.
See, that's where I'd characterize it differently; I wouldn't necessarily call them lazy, just cheap. They specifically left out support, in a bid to lower prices.

As for everyone else providing support, I think that's where we all come in, if we see it as enough of an affront. There's a great little niche automotive tuning package that a couple of friends of mine created quite a few years ago. They built a community around the product (an "in-club" private forum for owners), provided absolutely fanatical levels of support to their customers, gave the source code to the client software away for free so the more technical folks could make changes if they needed them, and generally treated everyone well. They got popular enough that it became worth the effort for people to reproduce their piece of interface hardware that effectively served as a security dongle as well, and they started selling it on eBay and local forums.

The community responded by effectively driving off the forgeries. Requests for help with the software on other forums were often met with "why don't you post that question on the private forum?" When the inevitable "I don't have access to it" response came, people with the skill to help refused to assist until they had a legitimate copy. People trying to sell the knock-offs were shown the door on most of the related enthusiast forums, and folks would report "sightings" in craigslist ads and forum classifieds with what seemed like a little bit of glee for being able to help catch them.

(Their new version of the product is significantly more difficult to replicate; it was an eye-opening experience that they took to heart. smiley-wink)

Tolkien managed a similar feat early in his career, as a result of lacking copyright protections for his work here in the U.S.: his fans went to bat for him and refused to do business with the company that was perceived as ripping him off.

These are rather extreme examples, but the idea is the same: if they're having trouble with a product they purchased, why don't they ask the seller for help? If the seller is unresponsive, perhaps they should ask themselves why?

With how much time I put in my Phi-1 shield design and software support and money I made, it's not very promising even as a casual designer, although I've not heard one complaint on my design yet. Hope my next step is paying off my time. Not trying to make money this time either.
Ponoko has some awesome advice for this situation. Actually, they have ten articles stuffed full of great advice on the topic, but there's one in particular that stands out for me in this situation:

Rule #1: Make a profit.

Makers sell things far too cheaply, fearing that they're ripping people off by charging what they personally perceive to be large markups. The reality is, that markup is what ensures you can keep making the product. Doing something because you love to do it and because you want to help people with the fruits of your labor is not at odds with doing so for a fair price.

Will open source hardware worth your time designing? That becomes my question.
Again, see Teensy, or see my friends above (they didn't release their product as open hardware); both were replicated. If you're popular enough to buy, you'll be popular enough to copy, and replicating an existing board is the easy part.

This isn't an open hardware failure, it's a business model failure. Photographers saw the stock photography business dry up because of sites like Flickr and iStockPhoto; newspapers are having their lunch handed to them by blogs and TV news; software companies are realizing that boxed sales and upgrades don't mean a solid recurring revenue model anymore. Lowered barriers of entry for amateurs and ease of reproduction through improved technology have cut into dozens of business models, including the sale of hobby electronics.

How's that for pessimistic on a Sunday? smiley-wink It's not the end of the world, though; you can either feel badly for yourself or blame the people "doing this to you", or you can rethink how you do business (or even if what you're doing is a business at all, or if it's a hobby you'd rather enjoy for the love of doing it than commercialize, as Graynomad points out).

(Yikes, that was a lot longer than I had planned. My apologies for spamming everyone.)
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This isn't an open hardware failure, it's a business model failure. Photographers saw the stock photography business dry up because of sites like Flickr and iStockPhoto; newspapers are having their lunch handed to them by blogs and TV news; software companies are realizing that boxed sales and upgrades don't mean a solid recurring revenue model anymore. Lowered barriers of entry for amateurs and ease of reproduction through improved technology have cut into dozens of business models, including the sale of hobby electronics.
+1

There has been lots of talk about Sparkfun and how much money they make from open source hardware but they have dominated the market now and this has pretty much stopped any other company making the same kind of money.
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There has been lots of talk about Sparkfun and how much money they make from open source hardware but they have dominated the market now and this has pretty much stopped any other company making the same kind of money.

Sparkfun has been a very successful start-up. But dominating the market via exploitation of open source hardware/software availability, that's hardly a lock in that guarantees them future success. I see no reason or barriers preventing other companies from entering and trying their luck at winning us customers over.  smiley-grin

There was a time when Radio Shack dominated the hobby electronics market, but they screwed the pooch over time. Now they are my last choice and then only if I'm desperate.

 I suspect the real electronic hobby market domination will most likely come from China. Maybe not by a single or few companies, but rather from a million small start-ups. I already make most of my parts buy from Asian sellers via E-bay and have been very pleased with both the prices and quality of stuff I have bought from there.

Lefty
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I suspect the real electronic hobby market domination will most likely come from China. Maybe not by a single or few companies, but rather from a million small start-ups. I already make most of my parts buy from Asian sellers via E-bay and have been very pleased with both the prices and quality of stuff I have bought from there.
Unfortunately there are other issues with stuff being made in China but we all know that.

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Hey logic, I thank you for doing a very good job cheering me up. I'll forge ahead then, with or without much profit, cause I really love to share what I made with others. I guess selling something you made also improves my confidence and carefulness in design. Regarding pricing my design, yeah, I'm hard-pressed by established market. I'm afraid buyers may compare apples with oranges, such as cheap reproductions of old designs with mine and go with the cheaper ones. I'll possibly increase the price by $2, and $5 at most. Again should be confident with my capabilities. Days of redesign and improvement with new features should be worth some minimal wage, right?  smiley-grin

I'll be providing the same level of support in the future and hopefully convince buyers to get originals and prevent copy cats from simply leeching on my designs, IF I get popular at all smiley-red.

Lefty, I think China has been a big factory for a decade or two now, and there is no wonder there are factory-direct sales that beat others' prices. The small stores in Asia will become important in the market in the near future especially China and India have the biggest populations. On the other hand (someone can speak for India), the people there are too busy making an everyday living, buying their tiny residence, iphones, or designer bags from Europe for ridiculous price tags and simply lots of them can't sit down and enjoy much of a hobby. So the consumer side of the market will likely be in the middle of pacific ocean (just center of mass between Europe and Americas) smiley. There might be a lack of information between the sellers and buyers as of what is most-wanted (I pretend I know marketing now  smiley-cool) and larger stores in US or Europe or hobby-level designers should still have plenty of space to survive.
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It's not just open-source stuff that gets leeched.  Back in the 1980s and 90s I did a lot of work with a friend on internal combustion engine controls.  He had developed,  and patented,  a simple method for closing the air/fuel ratio control loop that got about 80% of the pollution-reduction results of expensive computer controls at a fraction of the cost.

He was doing kinda-sorta okay selling to specialty markets (like propane- and CNG-fueled vehicles), but, when a huge opportunity came along to retrofit pre-computer cars, we discovered that a big competitor had simply ripped off his patent.  The patent attorneys told him he was screwed: the infringement lawsuit would take years, and carry a 6-figure price tag, with almost no chance of getting anyone to take it on contingency, even though there was no doubt about the infringement.

I haven't seen my friend for many years, but a web search says that his company is officially listed as defunct.
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Ran, your friend's story makes me mourn Tesla. I guess the law is blind in such a way that regardless who you are, you can only afford so much justice as the depth of your wallet. Someone I know is also in the field of engines and invented something nice. But the cost to get a patent (maybe just a provisional one as he described) was pretty high. Hope he makes enough to cover the cost and more as profit. The balance between an individual inventor and the rest (businesses trying to deal with inventors or simply rip them off) is not level. I consider that even worse with IP laws involved. Money amplifies so much the level arm of the large business side. smiley-evil

I guess in a bad scenario, the ripper could sue your friend for infringement and stops him dead, as they have more money and can "produce" proofs that they "own" the patent.
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nr Bundaberg, Australia
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you can only afford so much justice as the depth of your wallet.
Nothing new there.

It's for this reason I've always thought patents are a waste of time for the little guy.

I reckon the best you can hope for is that the large company will decide it's worth slipping you a $100k for the IP just because that's easier than paying a lawyer to start a fight.

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Rob Gray aka the GRAYnomad www.robgray.com

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Doesn't that shake your belief in open source hardware
Not really.  Open Source is defined by the motives of the creator, not the success (or actions) of the abusers.
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We're all taking inputs so the actions of copy cats could feedback to our systems though  smiley-wink
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