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The Free Range PUBLIC ACCESS

Idealists or Realists? Some Big Guns are Taking a Shot at Open-Source Product Development.

[+] Author Notes

Robert LaMarca is a freelance designer of Web sites and data bases who estimates that he has used both open-source and proprietary software about equally in his work.

Mechanical Engineering 128(03), 26-29 (Mar 01, 2006) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2006-MAR-1

This article discusses various aspects of open-source product development. The open-source business definition is the development of a product using components that are not restricted in their use by others. Open source is still novel in the world of mechanical engineering. In software, however, its influence has been quite pervasive, both at the corporate and individual levels. Influence of open source has begun to be felt in publishing, the sciences, and education. According to a professional mechanical engineer, an open-source low-emission car is another possible project. Samir Nayfeh, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, briefly investigated open source in the late 1990s, and expects that it would appeal to buyers in markets like machine tools, where customers do not like being locked into a vendor. The current market penetration of open source owes a great deal to individuals who would participate for their own reasons, sometimes for a moral idea, or for inclusion in a community of their professional peers, or to develop better skills.

Sometime around now, Sun Microsystems will release the designs of its latest microprocessor in the Sparc family, the Ultrasparc T1. A product of billions of dollars of R&D spending, it will be available to the public free of charge. It's probably one of the largest investments in engineered hardware that has been released as open source-that is, free to use, without licensing fees, as long as you play by the rules.

For Sun, the goal is to enhance the " development ecosystem"-that is, to get more programmers, consultants, clients, and engineers using its technology. Wide acceptance would increase the desirability of the platform as a standard for the future. After all, Sun is in an industry where market adoption (and therefore standardization) is often the most important factor in deciding the fate of a technology.

By going open source, Sun lowers the cost and difficulty of participation and hopes that lowering the barriers will advance the Sparc standard. Furthermore, this strategy seeks to encourage others to contribute their own unique innovations, enhancing the technology in ways that might not be possible for a single company, or even a consortium of companies.

Sun, however, may also be grooming its own competitors. It happened to IBM, when the personal computer became an open-source property in spite of the company's intentions. When IBM introduced its PC in 1981, the company also published proprietary codes for the computer.

The plan was to charge royalties for use of the intellectual property.

The book of code, in fact, had a different effect. It would set off a flurry of product innovation that hasn't slackened its pace in 25 years. It created the PC clone and the various clones of IBM that marketed the products.

IBM became an also-ran in the field. It held on for a long time, but in December 2004, it agreed to sell its PC business to Lenovo, a computer and consumer electronics company based in Beijing.

Sun will release the designs of the UltraSparc T1 soon if it hasn't already done so. According to Sunil Joshi, Sun's vice president of design tools, performance, and quality assurance, and the point man for the effort, the exact terms of the release, under the name OpenSparc, will be decided after a consultation with Sun's partners, but it will be open-source engineering, Joshi said. Anyone will be able to go online and download the designs. Sun will also be releasing its design tools to help people try to accomplish something with the designs.

Sun's main claim for the Ultrasparc T1 is that it can crunch many simultaneous operations while using less electricity than its competitors. In data centers operating large numbers of machines, that's "a really big deal," . Joshi said.

Open source is still novel in the world of mechanical engineering. In software, however, its influence has been quite pervasive, both at the corporate and individual levels. For years now, programmers have downloaded the source code of open-source programs, compiled it, used it, tested it, and sometimes improved it for the benefit of others. While not all companies are directly involved in open source, some make extensive use of open-source projects.

The ideas behind open source are sometimes idealistic and sometimes practical, but usually a bit of both. Its influence has begun to be felt in publishing, the sciences, and education.

Although they're not on the scale of Sun's project, there are other places where you can get open-source microchip designs. A Web site, www.opencores.org, is an online repository for such things.

Meanwhile, there is the RepRap project in England, which involves a manufacturing device. Adrian Bowyer, a professor of mechanical engineering at Bath University, has kicked off the development of a "self-replicating rapid prototyper," a machine that he believes will be able to make anything for which there is a CAD drawing, including copies (or partial copies) of itself. He offers the design free through a Web site, too, at reprap.org.

Bowyer estimates that the concept was about 25 percent complete when he started a year ago. As of this writing, about a half-dozen people are listed as contributors to the project, and you or I could go to the site and download plans for a polymorph extrusion head or a gear train.

He suggests that an open-source low-emission car is another possible project.

Samir Nayfeh, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, briefly investigated open source in the late 1990s, and expects that it would appeal to buyers in markets like machine tools, where customers do not like being locked into a particular vendor. Both Nayfeh and Bowyer note the possibility that open source could be a tool to aid the developing world. Whether or not something like Rep Rap or a low-emission vehicle spawns enough related opportunities to encourage corporations to take part is, of course, not yet known.

The open-source business definition is the development of a product using components that are not restricted in their use by others. A company gives up some of its intellectual property rights in exchange for a set of open standards and access to the work of others making use of the same basic technology.

So, how does someone make money? Think razor blades and printer cartridges. That's how it works with Linux, the computer operating system that is probably the bestknown example of open-source product development.

IBM, for instance, makes money selling hardware, from servers to supercomputers, that run Linux (as well as other operating systems). The company also sells "subscription services," a business model that is gaining a lot of traction these days. For IBM, this means on-demand computing and in-house consulting for large corporations. Selling hardware that runs the free Linux operating system is also a strategy employed by Sun, Hewlett-Packard, and others.

In general, it is more difficult to make money on the software side of open-source marketing. Companies such as Redhat and MySQL sell service contracts and support for a free product. Redhat recently started making money; MySQL is in the red.

According to Doug Heintzman, IBM's director of technical strategy, two fundamental reasons for supporting open source are that it is a "very effective and efficient way of propagating standards" and "allows us to participate in and harness an efficient collaboration on a global basis." IBM's commitment to open source includes $250 million and 600 programmers to work on Linux each year. IBM has recently purchased Gluecode, a maker of open-source application servers, and has released 500 software patents for open-source development.

Even this level of investment is a fraction of what a company would have to spend to go it alone, Heintzman said. One phrase often cited as an argument for open source is that it is best applird to "something that everyone needs but no one can Jillake money on," or at least something that no one ca~ profitably make unique. In other words, companies can use open source to avoid reinventing the wheel and to lower costs.

Perhaps the best example of this is the Apache Software Foundation's server, a program for hosting Web sites that currently serves about 70 percent of the sites on the Internet. According to Heintzman, "In 1998, we said, 'You know, we have a lot of server projects. Why in the world wouldn't we use Apache?' " By relieving itself of having to reinvent a mature technology, IBM could then focus on "niches that haven't been explored before," Heintzman said.

If there is a feature that Apache lacks, IBM or anyone else can add it, usually as a module. If there is a bug in the program, others can contribute a fix. The program is available for free use and for modification.

At the consumer level, open-source products are often available free. Yet, many of them are not truly consumer- ready, and consumers are often unwilling to spend the time to learn something new, even if it means saving some money. Corporate customers are sometimes willing to go open source when a consulting company, such as IBM, will take care of things.

The city of Munich made headlines when officials voted a couple of years ago to replace 14,000 municipal computers running Windows with ones using Linux. The vote, it appears, was the easy part. The city has yet to make the change over and is still running pilot programs.

Open source is behind products that users tend not to know about. Besides the Apache server, there are opensource programming languages, such as Ruby, PHP, or Perl, and database programs including PostgreSQL and MySQL. These are products that require some technical skill to install and maintain. They also provide a part of the computing industry's foundation. Most customers are unaware of them.

Josh Lerner is the Jacob H. Schiff Professor of Investment Banking at Harvard Business School. He has written extensively about innovation and research, and the principles of intellectual property. In 2000, he co-wrote a paper called "The Simple Economics of Open Source" for the National Bureau of Economic Research, with Jean Tirole, now the scientific director of the Institut d'Economie Industrielle.

They wrote that open source is often employed by companies "too small to compete commercially in the primary segment" or others "lagging behind the leader and about to become extinct in that segment."

Both Sun and IBM trail market leader Intel in the sale of microprocessors for computers.

According to its annual report, Sun Microsystems is coming off four consecutive years of losses, although it maintains a strong cash position and the losses have lately been lessening.

During the last few years, Sun has gradually moved software products to open source, including its operating system, Solaris 10, and its office productivity package, Star Office, which has an opensource variant, Open Office.

Heintzman said that IBM's open-source software strategy originated in the mid-1980s, at a "time of destructive nlarket forces."

Standards are extremely important in the computer industry. Many companies are willing to give away products to ensure that their standard survives. Microsoft gave away its Internet Explorer browser free, preinstalled on all Windows computers, in order to marginalize the significantly smaller Netscape company's browser, Navigator.

Internet Explorer is not open source because it cannot be altered and its designs are not publicly available. I t is simply free, or a feature of the Windows operating system, depending upon your point of view. Netscape responded by open-sourcing its software under the name of Mozilla. This group now makes an opensource browser, Firefox.

How is giving away intellectual investment supposed to generate income? Joshi explained. "Sun won't be able to innovate in every dimension," he said. "You actually expand the market by bringing in new ideas."

Joshi pointed out that, like some of its competitors, the Spare family of microprocessors has applications, including embedded electronics, beyond computers. The nature of the Spare family is to be scalable, meaning that code written for one Spare chip will run on all Spare variants.

According to Arlen Nipper of Arcom, a maker of embedded electronics for mechanical devices, there are already some products running Linux. Spare and IBM's Power processors both can be used for embedded electronics.

Will open source work for Sun? Joshi pointed out that the company has a head start with the technology, but admitted there is risk. "Years from now," he said, "someone could out-innovate us, and if they do, glory to them."

Some FEA and CAD programs are available as open source. Todd Evans of MSC Software, a maker of engineering software tools, pointed out that many FEA programs have their origins in the open-source release years ago of Cosmic Nastl'an, a package developed by NASA to which MSC was a contributor.

Later versions have become proprietary. MSC markets MSC.Nastran, and a competitor, Noran Engineering Inc., offers a.package called NEiNastran.

Standard strategy? Vying for market share, Sun Microsystems will offer its new Ultrasparc T1 processor as an open-source property.

Grahic Jump LocationStandard strategy? Vying for market share, Sun Microsystems will offer its new Ultrasparc T1 processor as an open-source property.

RepRap extruder head: The motor (A) drives screw chamber (B) to push polymorph to a heated nozzle (C). Control electronics are at (D).

Grahic Jump LocationRepRap extruder head: The motor (A) drives screw chamber (B) to push polymorph to a heated nozzle (C). Control electronics are at (D).

Power.Org: Not Open, But Maybe Slightly Ajar Source

I BM's Power.org (www.power.org) was establi shed last April to greatly ease licensing of IBM's PowerPC microprocessor architecture, which is used in everything from embedded electronics to electronic games and supercomputers . As of now, about 30 companies are signed on to Power.org. This is not true open source, but rather something "open source inspired," in the words of Dan Greenberg, a Power.org spokesman.

One way to look at IBM's Power.org is as a more expansive form of lic ensing agreement. The difference between Power.org and any other multicorporate collaboration may be a matter of emphasis.

Greenberg says that IBM's intention was to create an organization "that IBM would be a member of and also a lot of other companies would be a member of."

This means that access to the PowerPC standards is open to participants under the same terms, as long as they pay under one of the four membership programs. Fees top out at $100,000 a year for a "founder" level membership, with voting rights on the board. "Developer" or individual membership is free and includes access to technical data. Research institutions are also granted free membership.

Particular technologies related to the PowerPC could be licensed by the individual members to each other without need for IBM's direct intervention. In this light, it might be possible to see Power.org as a standa rd s board, or maybe a bazaar for technologies based on the PowerPC.

Genesi, a company that produces Microprocessor cards, has released one of its designs as open source under the Power.org aegis. IBM, for its part, released the PowerPC 405 embedded core (th is is not a genera l-purpose CPU that might drive a PC), which has been donated by IBM to research institutions.

IBM maintains proprietary contro l of the PowerPC instruction set, the codes by which the processor is programmed. IBM is also maintaining the software tools it uses to simulate microchip performance as its own, not sharing them, Greenberg said.

This is more open standard than open source. Accord ing to Greenberg, as the project has progressed., the standards have become more open since the launch and ensuing enthusiasm it accrued.

One application of Power.org is to encourage standardization of system-on-a-chip architectures . Greenberg likens the current SOC world to the sh ipping industry about 50 years ago-Iabor intensive, with pallets and cargo nets. He said, "Sometime in the last century there was standardization around containers, size weight, and grappling points," which drove down the cost of shipping. "We want the same thing to happen with systems on a chip. Power.org is driving toward this."

Open Future, Open Question

Evans is skeptical about the future of open-source engineering. His argument is that companies are reluctant to give up intellectual property.

"Ultimately, we want to get paid for our work," he said. Jonathan Knowles, director of worldwide market development for Autodesk, the company that markets AutoCAD, is a bit more optimistic. He said that there are people in his company who "have had this conversation." Autodesk has released a free (but not open-source) program to allow engineers to share CAD drawings in a platform-stable format.

Open-source proponents cite development costs as a reason to share the investment and rewards with others. The ability of anyone with even an inexpensive computer to prototype and tryout programs has allowed many to participate through the Internet. Sourceforge, a Web site (www.sourceforge.net) that plays host to open-source projects, listed 1.2 million registered users and more than 110,000 distinct opensource pr,ojects as of mid-January.

Some say that open source, by decentralizing decisionmaking, is a more efficient method of product development. As Lerner at Harvard points out, though, there is no data to back that up.

The current market penetration of open source owes a great deal to individuals who would participate for their own reasons, sometimes for a moral idea, or for inclusion in a community of their professional peers, or to develop better skills.

Bowyer and his RepRap seem to fall somewhere in that crowd. The project has "turned out much as one would expect," Bowyer said. "It has needed more of my time to keep up with documentation, but 'other people have contributed many useful and some vital ideas."

Bowyer's motivation was idealistic from the start. He wished to keep self-replicating technology from becoming someone's monopoly, because he sees it promising a very powel{ul influence.

On RepRap's homepage, there is a phrase, "Wealth without money." It reflects Bowyer's idea that a selfreplicating machine would ultimately so lower the cost of manufacturing that it would be essentially free, Someone could download, say, a toaster at his leisure. Perhaps it shows Bowyer's idealistic streak.

It also brings up the open question about open source: money.

Copyright © 2006 by ASME
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