Serial entrepreneur Andrew “Bunnie” Huang believes that consumer product companies should make their hardware designs publicly available so that anyone can study and modify them. He’s done this at multiple startups (Chumby, Novena, and Chibitronics) and details his experiences designing and manufacturing open-source hardware in his recently published book, The Hardware Hacker: Adventures in Making and Breaking Hardware. He spoke to MIT Technology Review about the advantages of fostering community among customers, how Moore’s Law impacts open hardware, and open-source practices in China.
You’ve built three open hardware platforms in the past decade—Chumby, Novena, Chibitronics—which were, respectively, a Wi-Fi-enabled content delivery device, an open-source laptop, and a set of peel-and-stick electronic circuits for crafting and education. Can you talk about why and how you rooted these businesses in open-source principles, making the source code and schematics freely available online?
I see value in learning from what people have to say about my product and seeing what they’ve done with it. The value of the [product] schematic and circuit board is actually a very tiny slice of the overall production chain. By sharing the schematic and circuit board and source code IP, I’m inviting customers to have a conversation with me about what this product should be. I’m not a genius, I’m not a marketing guy, so why should I say, “This is the only way you should use it”? By opening it up and including them in the conversation, customers can find uses for my product I never imagined, which I think is awesome. I learn from that and that helps me steer the product toward the customers who are really adopting and using it. [It’s] a nice way to grow an ecosystem and to involve really passionate customers who [form the] core of your business.
Not many companies open-source their products in this way, but you’ve written that you think the tide will turn and eventually favor open hardware, at least in some aspects. Why do you think that? And why do you think that the slowing of Moore’s Law is good for open hardware practices?
The slowing of Moore’s Law means that we’re going to start encountering more infrastructure that doesn’t change. Over the past two or three decades, technology moved so quickly that [companies] had to create multiple parallel teams to even keep up with Moore’s Law. It was easier to just keep chasing Moore’s Law and not really invest in [building] community.
In the 1990s, it would have been crazy to keep a laptop for five years, but now I have five-year-old laptops that work just fine. [That gives you] time for an open-source community to grow because you’re not constantly chasing a moving target, and it doesn’t hurt your company as much if, within a few months of putting your stuff out there, someone starts cloning it. It’s like, “Okay, well, we’re going to be producing this for years and years anyway.” And being able to have these cloners give me ideas back, which I can then use to improve my product, is worth a lot more than me trying to sue these guys out of existence.
Let’s also discuss the Chinese open-source community that you call gongkai, which is a Chinese transliteration of the English word “open.” [In your book] you describe this community as “people sharing copyrighted documents, such as gadget blueprints, not necessarily according to the letter of law.” How does open source in China differ from open source in the West?
I coined the term gongkai because there already is a proper Chinese word for open source, which refers specifically to the legal construct. I like to use the word gongkai because it calls out the fact that [these people are] sharing, but not according to the letter of the law. I think the interesting thing about the [gongkai] ecosystem in China, particularly around electronics, is that it evolved with the Internet. A lot of people in China who were designing [mobile] phones and stuff weren’t indoctrinated on how Western IP [intellectual property] should work. So they had to figure out a system that could allow them to innovate and also took advantage of the fact that the Internet [existed].
Whereas the American-style [patent system] is a very old system where you acknowledge a single person in the entire world as coming up with an idea and you give them a monopoly for 20 years. It feels not very Internet-like.
One really key thing that lets that gongkai ecosystem work, that treatment of IP work, [in China] is that basically everyone has a factory or is related to someone who has a factory or knows someone who has a factory. [In China] you don’t monetize stuff by negotiating an IP license and suing people. You monetize something by putting it on Taobao, which is the Chinese version of Amazon.com, and selling it faster than anyone else can.