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The Electronics Cooperative Concept, Part 1

The movement within engineering toward open-source thinking has consequences that could change not only the way engineering is done but could also change the way the electronics industry functions in the larger economy.

In the previous thread of articles, the question was asked: What if some engineers were to do something bold and take all the risk in making their designs openly accessible and free to be used by anyone wanting to manufacture, sell, and support them? This is a key issue for engineers interested in open-source hardware or software and also who are interested in making a living. Open-source discussion on the Internet shows that open-source efforts are conducted largely on either a hobby basis or as an industry open standard.

Widely used computer designs, such as the PC series with Intel-based microprocessors, have become so multiple-sourced that it is not hard to find circuit diagrams of them from which a PC could be built or repaired. Some computer designs have become open-sourced because they are de facto standards. The need to maintain compatible hardware on which to run widely distributed software does not apply to much electronics technology. There are not, for instance, any well-established measurement instruments; no oscilloscope has been multiple-sourced over a long time period.

For engineers who are trying to make a living, to give designs away seems self-defeating. However, designs are not as easy to protect from uncontrolled use as they might seem. Once a product is introduced into the public domain, it can usually be reverse-engineered. Patents are intended to protect novel concepts within designs, but they often do just the opposite by disclosing the more interesting design aspects and lessen the effort required of competitors in reverse-engineering the product. If they are retained as trade secrets, they can be hard to keep. The better the product, the more it is worth expending effort at reverse-engineering.

Product designs are inherently open to public scrutiny. Consequently, the effort it takes to hide a design or make it difficult to copy by a competitor is worthwhile only for high-performance, leading-edge technology. H-P applied considerable resources to the development of inkjet printing technology. When these printers were introduced to the market, potential competitors faced a technology barrier which is more formidable than a design barrier. This protected H-P's position in the inkjet market for a considerable time, but eventually the advantage H-P enjoyed diminished. The price of competitive advantage is continual progress. The open-source view assumes this.

Mainstream, medium-performance products, which constitute the bulk of what is sold, are more in the category of commodities. These products are based on known and established circuit techniques and are often price-driven in the market, though some segment of buyers will care about quality and performance per price and shop around. This segment is like the segment of operating-system users who choose Linux, a higher performance system that is essentially free. How can Windows compete? Many users of Windows have applications that run only on Windows.

For much of electronics, including medium-performance instruments, no such limitation applies. There is no reason that some standard designs for various kinds of instruments cannot emerge, be sold by multiple companies (as PC boards are) and as open-source products, and be refined by a community of users, suppliers, and designers into superb, long-lasting, and repairable products. The value of a large, installed knowledge-base for a given design has synergistic advantages. Users who know their tools can use them more productively.

In part 2 of this four-part series, we will continue our examination of this open-source concept as applied to the design of hardware-based products or equipment.

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3 comments on “The Electronics Cooperative Concept, Part 1

  1. etnapowers
    December 23, 2013

    Hi Dennis, when do you think that this new cooperative business model was born?

  2. D Feucht
    December 23, 2013

    “… when do you think that this new cooperative business model was born?”

    No idea. It is as old as architects and farm co-ops, and they pre-date the 20th century. To my knowledge, it is a new idea in the electronics industry.

  3. etnapowers
    January 2, 2014

    Also for me it's a really new business model, I've never heard something similar in the electronics industry. Sounds interesting.

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