Open source hardware sparks innovation

Nathan Seidle, founder and CEO of SparkFun Electronics, believes open source is not only good for humanity, but also good for business. SparkFun is a successful online retailer that sells the parts people need to build electronics projects.

He started his talk by describing some of the “crazy” (his word, not mine) things some of his customers have made with SparkFun products:

  • One customer used SparkFun cell phone modules and solar cells to track falcon migration across North America.
  • Another put a SparkFun sensor under a trampoline and connected it to the valve (and flame) on a propane tank. The idea was, the harder you jump, the bigger the flame.
  • And my favorite: A customer used a SparkFun motion sensor, a microcontroller, and a blender to create the “blender defender.” The purpose? To keep cats off kitchen counters.

To patent or not to patent?

Nathan had always been taught that good creators put their names on patents. So when he started SparkFun, he thought about the products they might want to patent. But the more he studied the world of patents, the worse it looked. Here’s why:

A patent ≠ innovation

Kodak had the patent on digital photography back in 1974—a big head start on what would become a US$2 billion industry. Kodak sat on those patents and litigated anyone who infringed on them. In the end, the company didn’t end up in a good place, which told Nathan that just because a company gets a patent doesn’t mean it will lead to innovation.

“If an idea can be copied, it will be.”NathanSeidle-Headshot2-Square

Any idea can be copied—not just the good ones

Take the computer mouse: It’s a great idea. It’s unique. There are many different styles. And it gets copied. Then there’s the Snuggie—arguably not as good of an idea as the mouse. Even it was copied. Remember the Slanket? (Yeah…)

Even complex things aren’t safe

Nathan says he bought an “iPhone 9”—that actually works (it has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and makes phone calls)—off the internet for US$33. He also cited Oculus Rift, which was one-upped by competitor Google Cardboard. Google shipped 5 million+ units of Cardboard before Oculus Rift could even post a profit.

Getting a patent is an expensive and lengthy process

It costs about US$30,000-$50,000 to file a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Plus it takes 3-5 years just to get a response. Technology can change a lot in that time, which means your product could be obsolete by the time your patent comes around. “You go ahead and get that patent,” Nathan said. “I’m going to innovate.”

The open source alternative

So Nathan and a group of like-minded people founded the Open Source Hardware Association in 2008. The movement’s principles are simple:

  • Provide editable source files so anyone can build your device.
  • Allow anyone to modify the device.
  • Let anyone sell the device.

Because these things will happen regardless, it’s only a matter of time before a competitor reverse-engineers your product, changes it, and sells it everywhere. The difference with open hardware is that it’s public domain. Thanks to prior art, people can’t patent your idea because you’ve already told the world about it.

Nathan talked about a couple of examples:

  • After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, there was a mass shortage of Geiger counters in Japan. A hackerspace community formed within a few weeks and created an open source Geiger counter. In a few months they had billions of data points showing the local population where hotspots were and whether food supplies was affected.
  • Nathan created a SparkFun product and released the source files–as they do with all their projects. About 12 weeks afterward, a similar product made by a Chinese company showed up on the market. Nathan decided to go meet the creator, Eric. Turns out, Eric had made some great improvements, which SparkFun then used to improve its product. Eventually, Eric’s company stopped selling their version because SparkFun provided better business value, like availability in the U.S., the ability to get the product to anyone within 24 hours, English-based tech support, and good online documentation.

Businesses compete on business principles

SparkFun_candid_image2That’s the point: Nathan believes businesses should compete on business principles. Open hardware showed him that his company had to get really good at doing that to thrive.

Imagine the amazing things we could accomplish if we stopped worrying about defending patent portfolios and started investing that time and energy into something bigger—like teaching the next generation of citizens, hackers, and technophiles.

Nathan concluded by asking all of us to help make a better future by volunteering to teach kids about open source.


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