Bluespec, a software tool developed at MIT for designing and testing circuits, is one of the advances making life easier for open-source-hardware engineers. Jamey Hicks ‘87, SM ‘88, PhD ‘92, director of the Nokia Research Center in Cambridge, uses Bluespec to collaborate with MIT students to build designs for next-generation cell-phone radios and open-source video decoders–chips that decompress video for display on cell phones and other mobile devices. The beauty of Bluespec, says Hicks, is that you can essentially “program” a circuit design using sets of preëxisting instructions. “For educational purposes, it’s useful to have preëxisting designs available just like those that are available in software,” he says. “If you have a starting point to build on, you can get more done.”
Nokia is interested in open-source hardware because it can move research forward faster, Hicks says. For instance, if video decoder chips are open and widely available, they can be updated more quickly as new video standards, such as high definition, emerge. “Some company might decide to pick up an open design and incorporate it into a [chip] that Nokia could use,” says Hicks. He says that Nokia decided to work with MIT on open-source video decoders (among other open-source projects) because it realized that if all chip makers–even those that compete with Nokia’s suppliers–had access to decoder designs, Nokia could reduce development time overall and reap the benefits of potential innovation.
It’s not surprising that MIT is seeding open-source hardware projects and startups, given its long and storied tradition of hacking. And the Institute demonstrated another truth about the open-source approach when it launched OpenCourseWare in 2002, with the aim of putting nearly all of its class materials on the Web.
By 2007, MIT was offering online access to lecture notes, suggested reading, and in many cases video for more than 1,800 courses. While that may seem like giving away a product worth thousands of dollars, the fact is that having access to class materials can’t duplicate the experience of learning on campus. In creating OpenCourseWare, MIT realized that its real value comes from its professors, its students, and its community–all of which are impossible to replicate.
Although technology companies have fundamentally different objectives from those of educational institutions, they, too, are recognizing that embracing openness doesn’t amount to giving away the store. If they aim to provide a platform for other designers rather than trying to design the best product for everyone, says von Hippel, they are freed to focus on what large companies are uniquely equipped to do: namely, high-volume production, customer service, and brand marketing.