Of course, for some companies, unlocking the secrets of design just won’t work. “A developer [may have] some intellectual property embedded in the design, and their business depends on keeping that closed,” Hicks says.
Von Hippel agrees. “If you’re going to be open source, you’ve got to profit from something other than your designs,” he says. To shift to open source, some companies might need to change their business plans. That might take time, or it could be prohibitively expensive.
But it should be noted, says Hicks, that hardware combining open- and closed-source components can still benefit from improvements provided by a large community of tinkerers. Some parts of a design can be opened up, while others remain under wraps to maintain intellectual-property rights.
Von Hippel predicts a gradual shift in many industries. Eventually, he says, companies that make such things as high-tech devices and mountain bikes will no longer design their products; instead, the people who use the products will design their own. For example, companies that currently design machines for Boeing might still provide the materials and manufacture the machines, but engineers at Boeing will design the machines themselves, since they best understand how they’ll need to use them. “I see open-source solutions increasing their hold in many more fields and being empowering for us all,” Von Hippel says. As people who use the products, “we’ll get more of what we want and be able to participate in design much more. Manufacturers will go to becoming foundries that produce what users design.”
It’s as if the rest of the world is awakening to the joy of hacking, he says. “You can say that MIT for many years had the comparative advantages that the rest of the world is currently getting: access to better tools, access to a community of experts. The same thing that inspires the tradition of hacking at MIT can spread, because now a hacker can join from anywhere.”