Using Open Source Hardware to conquer new Markets

By on November 5, 2013
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Few days ago, I stumbled upon Angel, an amazing project for a healthcare/fitness related wristband sensor. The project raised more than 300k$ on the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo and looks really well designed: what attracted my curiosity (we actually published a news few days ago) tough, was indeed it’s huge call to openness that was – presumably – one of the major drivers of the project success.

In fact, in the project description on the campaign page, the project dubs itself as “Made for Developers”:

“An open eco-system [where] developers will be able to use Angel to create apps for iPhone, Android, and other devices that support Bluetooth 4.0.” thanks to “SDK, drivers and app templates [that] will be released as open source.”

Despite this was a promising start (that also pushed many technology news outlets to identify the project as some sort of Fitbit For Hackers), lower in the page I’ve found an even better statement that literally made me open my eyes wide.

In a section dubbed “How is Angel different from the other wristbands out there?”, Angel team says:

“Angel does not limit its users to proprietary interfaces. It was designed from the ground up to be open, both in hardware and software. We look forward to the innovations and optimizations that come from an open platform.”

As you may understand, given my huge interest in promoting Open Source Hardware and my (maybe less well know) familiarity with IoT and Wearable technologies (as I consult and strategically support both companies on the provider and industrial side) I was literally thrilled: finally a company that gets it well and understands that liberating hardware from the closed source approach could trigger incredible opportunities in the consumer market.


User Driven Innovation

Once I grasped that the product could be open source hardware I suddenly had some thoughts on how the nascent wearable industry could have been impacted by such a news.

But let’s make a step backward for a while. By being empowered by a full open source software stack (with IDE, apps and everything) Angel already characterized itself as a platform that potentially has the maximum appeal towards developers: you can dig so deep in the code that wasn’t really possible up to now (“Our SDK, drivers and app templates will be released as open source”).

Developers have already shown to the world how impacting and disrupting an ecosystem that leverages their contribution could be: think of the difference between the first iPhones and the legacy featurephones (or even higher tier phones) with no app ecosystem. People understood so fast how different the product would have been: it happened in a matter of months if not weeks.

But why this happens? Why people loves customizable stuff?  We had lots of demonstrations that true innovations come from the hand of the user. There’s an entire body of work, especially focused on Eric Von Hippel’s  discoveries (and the concept of User Toolkits for Innovation), related to the quantity and quality of innovation that users generate when they can hack their products.

When this is not directly possible for users (such as in the case of developing an app, since not everybody knows how to program)  this responsibility to innovate is happily left to the “Developer”. Developers are power user of the platform that are willing to work on creating and testing new use cases (apps) by using the marketplace to put this innovations and ideas into users’ hand. Users are ultimately responsible of the success of these “hacks” and finally state the success of an app or another by choosing an using it. An app marketplace and an open (even if not open source) IDE just contribute to software and service innovation in a way that no manufacturer can put in place alone.


How would open source be beneficial to a given hardware platform?

So, despite we give this as acquired in the software realm, this very situation is not that clear with hardware. Let’s think to Apple for a while: it’s by far one of the most successful product and user driven innovation ecosystems of the computing history. Despite its software is open at least in terms of interfaces (APIs), Apple keeps its hardware strongly closed, also using non-standard interfaces, for example in power cables. By keeping it’s hardware and Operating System closed, Apple succeeded to create relevant profits because if you wanted to access the power of the ecosystem they nurtured in years you need to buy their hardware and pay for your access to the IDE.

oshw-logo21On another hand, we have another exemplary company, that it’s still small now (per respect to Apple) but that pushed the openness approach to a more relevant layer. We are talking of Arduino: Arduino is basically a fully open source platform (HW and SW) and uses a different approach to generate the profits that are needed to its sustainability and improvement: it only monetizes a brand and story. This brand was built on top of years of community consensus and discussion and it’s now an incredibly valuable asset for the company, as it’s completely built on trust and community.

As you can see there’s a lot of difference and the first one may be in one key approach: competition. Apple now suffers the competition of a more open platform, Android, and we can’t see it’s not market leader anymore. Arduino, instead, it’s dominating its industry, exponentially growing and de facto established as a “standard” interface. Newbies look for Arduino, not SOC in general, Arduino is effectively everywhere and you can think to make basically everything out of it with its growing portfolio of boards.

By being open souce and, plus, a pioneer of its market, Arduino not only established as the market leader (at least in DIY hacking) but also became a key resource and a base brick of further innovations. As a result of being the preferred interface, Arduino is now everywhere and it’s really difficult to position products that compete with it. From its privileged point of view, Arduino team is also able to monitor use cases that “developers” (makers?) worldwide are testing and, eventually, introduce products that are more in line with customer expectations and needs. Would this be possible if Arduino wasn’t open hardware? I don’t think so: people who would not have otherwise had the chance to hack it, to eventually adhere their expectations and use cases.

This peculiarity of being truly and entirely opensource made Arduino itself super resilient: the company relies, in fact, on super strong bonds between the brand (and all it represents) and the users, making very difficult the idea of users migrating to another development environment.


Using Openness for conquering the market

It should be clear at this point in the post, that openness in hardware can be used as a powerful tool to conquer emerging markets: being a first mover in open source, in a potentially huge hardware related market, gives you a great possibility to build a strong community of interests and innovations through openness. What is your venture supposed to give in exchange of this appreciation? Some of your profits.  Let’s make it clear and plain: open source hardware companies such as Arduino or RepRapPro are ruling their reference markets by means of empowering others to create other companies, products and profits.

Despite your company cannot grab all the profits around your ecosystem, the overall size of it is can be huge even if profits are not concentrated in your hands, in that of a single players: these ecosystems grow horizontally and eventually become more secure and long term resilient as they transform in a common interface a common base for innovation.


Coming up

At Dublin’s Web Summit I’ve eventually been able to meet with Angel Team and, to my delusion, I must say that the openness in hardware that I grasped from the campaign page, was probably a misunderstanding. Despite this, Angel still has a great proposition to empower developer and customer driven innovation and will soon be featured on Open Electronics in an interview.

Angel project apart, I will be happy to know your ideas about how to use Open Source as a tool to conquer your (hardware) market.


About Simone Cicero

Simone Cicero is a blogger (at, strategist & speaker. Simone is also a long time Open Source advocate and Open Source Electronics editor. Follow him on twitter at @meedabyte