Like many of today’s entrepreneurs, Limor Fried got her start while still in college, launching Adafruit Industries, which sells kits and parts for open source hardware electronics, with $10,000 that was supposed to go toward her tuition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The investment paid off handsomely. Not only was she able to earn back the money she needed to pay for her education (she earned a master’s degree in engineering), she also laid the foundation for a successful, creative career helping hobbyists recreate and refine everything from USB iPod chargers to programmable LED belts.
What do you think is driving the accelerated interest in open source hardware (OSHW)?
Overall, I think the benefits of OSHW are so great—from community to faster development and information sharing—it’s hard not to get excited about it. Every day there is another great example. The other week, Google announced that it had selected Arduino for its Open Accessory Development Kit. With well over 100,000 Arduinos in the wild, Google is unleashing Android developers to make their own accessories—all using open source hardware. When giant companies talk about open source hardware as the future of their development, you know there will be lots of interest. It reminds me of when open source software really clicked for the decision-makers, as well as the users.
What’s your sense of where this all is headed?
Open standards, open information sharing, collective smarts, user-driven innovation—this is where it’s heading. It’s in our genetic nature to share, and now we can share designs, electronics, and how to make things. From open source software to hardware and simple things like photos—there’s really no going back.
You’ve said you’d like to keep Adafruit focused on exploratory ventures. Is the future of open source hardware in mass-market products, niche devices, or both?
What’s mass market nowadays? There are tens of thousands of open source hardware products and projects, and overnight Google is adding Arduino to its phone development platform. I’ve sold tens of thousands of Do-It-Yourself iPod chargers, and Chumby [a compact wi-fi device that displays information from the Web] is sold in big box retailers around the world. So I think we’ll see many break-out hits and many, many small companies. The good thing is, it’s open, so the designs will be around no matter what happens to the companies, and all those smarts will always live on.
What sort of challenges do you see ahead for the movement?
We have a logo and a very good definition and overview. We need to make licenses. Right now, we all mostly use the Creative Commons Share-Alike attribution for our hardware. It’s OK, but we need specific OSHW licenses that can be evaluated via the OSHW definition. This will take time, and all the folks who really do OSHW are running companies, so it’s a challenge to get us to stop working and work on something tedious and boring like legal text.
We also need an open file format for the files we all share. Luckily, CadSoft, the maker of EagleCad, is working on this, and hopefully we’ll have nice XML-based open file formats for all within the next couple years.
The last challenge is a nationwide one: How do we make more makers? How do we inspire the next generation to become scientists and engineers? This is a hard problem.
What’s your take on Facebook’s decision to open source its new data center?
Facebook “open sourced” something that isn’t really a competitive advantage. There is no downside to putting up a list of equipment used to run a data center. I’d like see them open source a “bill of privacy rights” that we can all work on with them. Far more needed!
Will that decision have any impact on the computing industry and/or the open source hardware community?
Not much. I really don’t see any open source hardware people so far getting interested in Facebook’s infrastructure. It’s an interesting problem, but not something we can really solve or work on. I don’t have a data center here to tinker with, but I can publish how to make a solar charger for your phone and have others improve and share designs. That seems a better use of my efforts and others can easily participate.
You were recently featured on the cover of Wired magazine. What sort of responses did you receive?
It was a great way for a lot of people I lost touch with to reconnect, and it was also a great way to experience the modern media landscape. I was the first female engineer on the cover, and that got a lot of press about press.
I really assumed I would get some hard questions about open source hardware or how I run my business. Nope. The male-dominated tech world wanted to know if I was Photoshopped or not. (I wasn’t). “Hot or Not”—it’s a little odd to read comments by people who’ve never met me, discussing how I look. It really just means we still have a long way to go.
Leah Hoffmann is a technology writer based in Brooklyn, NY.