Sloan School management professor Eric von Hippel, SM ‘68, describes these ideas in his book Democratizing Innovation–which anyone can download free from his website. One of the world’s leading proponents of open technology, von Hippel, who is also a professor in the Engineering Systems Division, maintains that products are best designed and modified by the people who actually use them. While it is prohibitively expensive for a company to design, prototype, and test-market every design tweak that customers could want, motivated customers will take on those tasks themselves to get exactly what they want without having to wait for it.
The concept of open technology isn’t new, of course. For more than a decade, technically inclined people have been modifying the underlying code of open-source software such as Linux. Once an obscure operating system for geeks, Linux is increasingly going mainstream; the numbers are hard to track because users aren’t required to register their systems, but Dell currently ships five models of computers with the Linux-based operating system Ubuntu preinstalled. And IBM uses Linux with more than 15,000 business customers. The Firefox Web browser, which has been downloaded onto more than 180 million desktops, has become another poster child for open-source software. More than 800 programmers supply bits of code to the Mozilla Foundation, the nonprofit organization that manages Firefox. Mozilla’s small team of engineers then cobbles all those bits together and releases prototypes of new browsers to thousands of testers, including the programmers themselves, who provide feedback and more code to make the browser run well and operate securely.
Engineers like Fried believe that open-source hardware may be on a similar path. “Open-source software took many years to create something ‘useful,’” she says, “but [the fact] that it did became the inspiration for duplicating that model [in hardware].”
Von Hippel observes that open-source hardware actually predates open-source software by centuries: people have always shared blueprints and sketches for such things as furniture and machinery. But the visibility of the open-source-software community “has created a new awareness of what has long been the historical practice in hardware,” he says.
What’s different about today’s open hardware is that the Web and new types of design software are making it easier to build, share, distribute, and modify hardware designs. “Most products are designed in software first,” says von Hippel. “So you’re designing and simulating on the computer, and in the last step you turn it into hardware. If you think of open-source software as an information good, then open-source hardware is also an information good until the very last stage.” Hardware designs can be shared and improved and reshared as easily as software designs.