For those not in the know, there are a few ways to develop and release a project; closed-source (proprietary) or open-source are considered the primary two paradigms. Long confined essentially to the software space, open-source evolved fairly directly from the free software movement, pioneered by GNU and the Free Software Foundation in the 1980s, which outlined key inalienable freedoms that should be given to users (1), including the ability to read, modify, and redistribute source code. Whilst the Free Software Movement is considered a group focused on ethics, open-source is regarded as a somewhat more technical term – a development method in which project-essential resources, such as source code, is available to all who want to access it.
Neither free nor open-source projects denote there must be zero cost to the user – namely, whilst these resources are freely given out, open-source projects can certainly make money. Blender, an open-source 3D software suite, nets over a million euros a year via its development fund alone (3), whilst other software companies such as Red Hat, the developers of the Fedora Linux distribution, charge for technical support services. Platforms such as Github have dramatically increased interest in open-source software, and there's clearly huge corporate interest – Microsoft bought the company for $7.5 billion (4).
Modern projects developed using this strategy buck recent trends – whilst in the past, availability to source code was ubiquitous, the success of large companies releasing closed-source software has lead to widespread acceptance of the proprietary paradigm, where the users are simply given the human incomprehensible "binaries", without access to the source code that created them. Free and open-source (FOS) projects offer a refreshing change, a huge amount of transparency between users and developers, and provide some enticing advantages.
It's easy to imagine these ideas being mapped to a hardware space – schematics, designs, and even instructions for manufacture can all be released openly, whilst the people behind the design can still sell completed products. The question is, what's the upside? Why not keep these documents behind closed doors? And what can we learn from successful open-source projects?
To find out, I reached out to the team over at apertus°, who are developing the open-source digital camera project: AXIOM. I wanted to find out how their transparent development strategy had affected their process – and whether or not it had offered up any hardships.
What was your motivation behind developing the AXIOM project as open-source?
“The project’s foundations were laid in response to deficiencies found to be inherent with one of the well known cinematography camera brands and a complete lack of forthcoming support from the respective company. Good ideas are often inspired through real problems, but this time, unlike with most instances where ideas are thought of but perhaps not pursued, we persevered over the subsequent years and saw the idea of a free cinema camera through. Keeping all aspects of the project open source and open hardware was the honourable route to take as doing so enables any and all users to adapt the camera and related equipment to suit their own needs, to benefit from non-restricted access to all captured, unmodified data, and to customize internal processing. The project’s history has been fully documented on its corresponding wiki page - https://wiki.apertus.org/index.php/AXIOM_Project_Background “
What kind of benefits have you seen from using the open-source paradigm, compared to other projects you may have seen or worked on?
“We can’t speak for other open source projects but in our case the research and development road hasn’t been easy by any stretch of the imagination. Devices as sophisticated as the ones we’re bringing into the world would invariably require millions in funding and the architectures which underpin the camera’s hardware typically entail a steep learning curve for any parties who might be interested in contributing. A real tangible benefit for us has been to see how high-level vision research bodies benefit from incorporating the camera into their applications. Some of which can be found demonstrated here - https://wiki.apertus.org/index.php/AXIOM_Beta/Case_Studies “
How has community collaboration affected the development of AXIOM, if at all?
“We’ve tried to involve the community as much as possible in major decision making. One of the problems we’ve faced is that the largest proportion of those individuals who initially crowd-funded the project (approx 95%) could be best described as ‘end-users’ - Very skilled in their respective field (film-making) but who have nevertheless proven reluctant to engage at the coal-face of hard, time-consuming research and development, which is understandable. One of our tasks, moving forward, will be to assist with and encourage more meaningful contribution from field-specific user communities and to provide platforms which might better make this possible.”
Compared to proprietary projects, are there any downsides you've noticed with the development of open-source hardware? If so, what are they?
“The proprietary projects involved in the high-end, digital, cinema camera arena are typically long-standing corporations with deep histories benefiting from a cradle of significant financial resources. There have been new ventures into the field, but in each case there has been financial backing from somewhere. So it’s probably important to note that, with sophisticated open hardware projects and their crowd-funding, a proven track record would certainly make raising the sums required for a reasonably quick turn-around a more realistic possibility.”
Has the open-source development cycle of AXIOM affected your view of proprietary projects? If so, how?
“Well it was known that proprietary projects in this field were bad for limiting user control before the project’s R&D commenced, but many hitherto unknown ways in which cameras stifle freedom and lock customers into profit-oriented workflows have since been discovered certainly.
Those who’ve previously capitalised on existing business models are still opting to manoeuvre inside paradigms associated with secrecy and competition. Across all sectors, not just film and its marketplaces for related equipment, it’s clear that these paradigms are proving extremely difficult to shake-off. Members of AXIOM Community are aiming to prove that it’s possible either to force the hand of technology giants where respecting user freedom is concerned or to convince their existing customers that, with enough effort and commitment, we can do things better for ourselves.”
Using the open-source paradigm can also have wide ranging impacts on research and development – a 2015 study out of Michigan Technological University took the example of an open-source syringe pump designed for scientific purposes – the study argued that the millions of dollars of economic value that had come from the open design represented "orders of magnitude increase in value from conventional proprietary development", and that "FOSH development should be funded by organizations interested in maximizing return on public investments"(5). Another study from the same year comes to an almost identical conclusion – the customisability (and lack of otherwise necessary expensive research and development) meant that funding open-source hardware designs "results in enormous ROIs for the scientific community"(6).
This principle can be applied to essentially any project – something as simple as an extensible pen holder could save a school with a 3D printer, and specific needs, huge amounts of time and money. Essentially, any open-source project could revamp entire communities, just as RepRap 3D printers did for the entire rapid prototyping workflow, impacting dozens of industries (7) with their open and evolving design.
So, whether your next project is personal, large-scale, or even commercial, consider the benefits of open-source – not only can it benefit your project via community involvement and innovation, but it can also benefit the entire ecosystem around the idea. It's a valid, tested, and open development strategy – and it certainly shouldn't be written off.
Thanks a lot to the wonderful team at apertus° for helping out with this article – check out their website here: https://www.apertus.org/.
Written by Zev Cooper-Bennun, BEng Medical Engineering with a Year in Industry,
3rd February 2020
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