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Open Source and Niche Technologies

posted Jul 4, 2012, 7:16 AM by Lewis Baumstark
A Sam Muirhead left this very good comment on an article about Open Source and 3D Printing:

Another of the wonderful effects of allowing everybody to tinker is that it can create an explosion of highly specific and creative uses in all sorts of different areas. You may have built a gadget, only thinking about its use in robotics. However, in the right hands, with some lateral thinking and plenty of hacking, trial and error, might be adapted for use in beekeeping, in trainspotting, in tailoring or aeronautics - all opportunities which would have never existed with a closed-source model.

Quite so.  Until recently, the tools and infrastructure needed to develop a new product were expensive, requiring financing via corporations, venture capitalists, etc.  That means you need a business model capable of recouping that investment and paying back your creditors.  Which in turn means you have to have a product with broad enough appeal and/or utility that a lot of people are going to buy it.  With that in mind, niche uses for technology often are simply are not cost effective from a business sense.

With Open Source, the inputs become cheap enough someone can build one-offs for niche uses without the massive start-up cost traditionally associated with technology development.  Throw in the Internet, which makes bragging aboutcommunicating your new gizmo to the masses cheap and easy, and the lateral idea-transfer Mr. Muirhead mentions becomes reality.  (Another thought: education is an important and, traditionally, expensive input to product development.  The Internet has brought the cost of that down, too.  Want to know how to wire up a potentiometer or program a depth-first search algorithm?  Get thee to Google!  Someone has probably written a web page about it.)

Now this isn't some screed about how Open Source is turning product development on its head.  Traditional (expensive) product development still has a place and will for a long time (good, because I'd much prefer an iPad to some hacked-together-in-my-garage "tablet").  As a basement tinkerer and CompSci educator (hats I wear that both operate on a limited budget), though, I revel in the freedom to decide what my tech needs are and how they should be addressed.  Contrast this to the traditional top-down model that says some other company gets to decide what my needs.  Government policies, which until now mainly favor traditional models (primarily through patent laws), need to change so that the playing field is level for both models.