Open-source hardware can be seen as aspirational—an ideal or ethos—but we’ve also seen that it can be good business (hello from Adafruit!). For the companies that work in this space, a lot of emphasis is placed on the people and companies releasing boards, files, and code. This makes sense, it’s a daring if not precarious position for a business, but it’s important to remember the community that makes the circle of open-source hardware thrive.
Naomi Wu, the creator of Sino:bit, argued as much in this year’s China Open-Source Conference. The YouTube star (who focuses on DIY technology) felt that the Micro:bit and Calliope weren’t ideal for educating kids around the world, citing their lack of functionality and limited LED display, respectively. She decided to forge a board that had high out of the box potential, but also a 12 x 12 LED matrix that was friendly to alphabets other than Roman (the Sino:bit is able to display Chinese, Arabic, Hindi and more).
She already had a large social media footprint and dedicated viewership, so the long and hard work of building a community and followers was already done. What she needed was a manufacturer that had experience making the type of product she envisioned. She found one in Elecrow and promised her backing if they launched the product. When the board was released and hardware/code was on github, she instantly had a community ready to fulfill the aspirations of open-source hardware, i.e. iteration, feedback, and improvements on the initial design. Adafruit even wrote libraries for it.
Wu also recounts working with Creality3D to have them develop an open-source printer. She advocated the importance of open-source hardware to the company, and advocated the printer to her community. Within a week of its release, the printer became the top selling 3D printer on Amazon with “hundreds of reviewers absolutely clear that it’s open-source status and the ease with which they could work on it was the deciding factor in their purchase.”
There is a symbiotic relationship with open-source hardware. This, compounded with the power and leverage of established celebrity, allowed these companies to instantly tap into a network of customers, creators, developers and fans to improve upon their product. Wu is right that the community is essential in developing viable open source products — it’s important to remember her presence supercharged the process.
The whole video is worth a viewing.