RMS says: We need Free Digital Designs!


Back in 1999 Richard Stallman had interview commenting on “Free Hardware” for Linux Today, where he says “freedom to copy software is social imperative, but freedom to copy hardware is not so important as hardware is hard to copy”

SO even man with such visionary as RMS didn’t understand quite well why people would have motive to make Free Hardware Designs (also known as Open Source Hardware Designs).

Somewhere else he also have said something like: “We do not need imperatively free hardware, but well documented hardware” to may write proper software for it. Looking from Software point of view he is probably right, but he was missing something important: Free/Open Source Hardware is not done just to allow other to replicate it. It serves much deeper goals.

  • Spreading knowledge – when people have access to the design files they can learn how the original author created this hardware and study the design from inside.
  • Getting vital feed back and improving the design – the author who opens everything can get free expertise from many other people who works on same problem and thus to combine the knowledge of the community about this. In long run product which is collaboratively developed is with better specs and features than the one who is done in closed company.
  • When your hardware is with open specs this gives your customer additional value – they know everything about your hardware, they are not dependent from single source of manufacturing, they can modify and customize for their need. All else being equal OSHW design will be preffered and gives more value to the customer.
  • By opening the designs you give access to the technology to casual people who can innovate and no need to be big companies with lot of money. Just have look at what 3D printing and Arduino did.

This is why it was nice to see the evolution with RMS view on the Open Source / Free Hardware which he published in Wired yesterday named: Why we need free hardware designs?

In this article RMS says:

We need free digital hardware designs!
Free hardware designs offer practical advantages. Multiple companies can fabricate one, which reduces dependence on a single vendor.
Having circuit diagrams or HDL code makes it possible to study the design to look for errors or malicious functionalities (it is known that the NSA has procured malicious weaknesses in some computing hardware).

If you design hardware, please make your designs free.


Although naming “Free Hardware Design” what we know more popular as Open Source Hardware, RMS correctly spots the advantages vs closed non-free Hardware Designs.


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. zoobab
    Mar 13, 2015 @ 19:53:04

    Let me spot the difference between “Free Hardware” and “Free Hardware designs”. RMS said at last CCC that he did not like the “Open Hardware” term, neither the OSHW term, and he would prefer “Free Schematics”. Most of the board schematics can be “open” or “free”, but the big black system-on-chip in the middle is still a big “blob” for most of us.


    • OLIMEX Ltd
      Mar 14, 2015 @ 00:07:02

      With all the respect for RMS I’m still puzzled why he always want to invent his own terminology even for things which already has evolved naturally and have clear and wide accepted terms and definitions like OSHW.
      Free schematic is incomplete and just part of one hardware design, as you need more than just the schematic to may study, learn and modify one design. CAD files are the ones which define one design and as sources from them you can extrapolate all other info like Schematic, PCB Gerbers, BOM etc info necessary to reproduce one design.


      • Morgaine
        Mar 14, 2015 @ 04:43:02

        OLIMEX Ltd writes:
        > Free schematic is incomplete and just part of one hardware design

        I agree. RMS understands software deeply and has been proved right time and again, but in hardware he seems to be out of his element and hasn’t received good advice on this. Perhaps it’s up to us to inform him that CAD files are the hardware equivalent of software sources.


      • karme
        Mar 15, 2015 @ 03:53:09

        “With all the respect for RMS I’m still puzzled why he always want to invent his own terminology”
        I don’t think it is fair to say “always want to invent his own terminology”.

      • OLIMEX Ltd
        Mar 15, 2015 @ 12:52:32

        I mean when OSHW term is already known and accepted to name it now “free hardware” although at least in Bulgarian language Free (Svoboden) sounds better than Open (Otvoren) Hardware

  2. Morgaine
    Mar 13, 2015 @ 21:06:18

    Software and hardware are just labels we have applied to different areas of a spectrum of implementation techniques. That spectrum is actually continuous, so it’s not surprising that the same concepts of freedom and openness will ultimately apply to both forms of implementation.

    The physical end of the spectrum will in time be transformed by a third implementation technique: molecular nanotechnology (MNT). Although interest in MNT has been widespread ever since Eric Drexler wrote his popular 1986 book “Engines of Creation”, we’re still in the bootstrapping stage of that technology, equivalent to the early days of semiconductors when creating single transistors was still a research area. We’ll get there eventually.

    Once MNT does emerge from its current research phase, the design of physical systems will become much more like software design than hardware is today. MNT-based hardware will be defined fully by a software specification which guides a suite of cooperating molecular engines towards self-assembly of the specified target with atomic precision. Nature’s own DNA-based engines already do this with protein components, so the immense potential of guided molecular assembly is clear to see. (MNT research focuses on materials with stronger engineering properties than nature has seen fit to use.)

    In other words, we’re heading towards a future in which hardware down to the atomic level is defined by a specification, just as software is today. As a result, in the long run it makes no sense to distinguish between software and hardware in the context of freedom and openness. The fact that they seem different today is just an accident of our still very limited control over atoms and molecules. That is set to change.


    PS. (i) For those who haven’t done so yet, do sit back with a copy of “Engines of Creation” and have a good read — it’s excellent, and available online too at http://www1.appstate.edu/dept/physics/nanotech/EnginesofCreation2_8803267.pdf . See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engines_of_creation

    (ii) For those wanting the full treatment at engineering level, Drexler’s MIT thesis evolved into an extremely detailed 1992 textbook, “Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing,and Computation”. It’s an epic tome and a very inspiring read, but requires a solid background in physics, chemistry, and materials engineering. See http://e-drexler.com/d/06/00/Nanosystems/toc.html


  3. H.Trickler
    Mar 15, 2015 @ 21:18:21

    One should not forget that RMS is an older generation where hardware was too complicated to do anything yourself. For this reason he does not see the opportunities and importance of open HW designs.


    • SK
      Mar 16, 2015 @ 11:58:07

      “…older generation where hardware was too complicated to do anything yourself” – I would argue and say that it is exactly the opposite! Hardware was much simpler and you could really do something yourself (albeit not very useful but computers then where generally not what you understand today as a computer). For example the multiple articles about how to do yourself a singleboard microcomputer! Olimex tried to do this with the first versions of OLinuXino, too. But today things are much more complicated and not build with discrete components or with low level of integration components. So if you want to DIY something form end to end you will have a hard time. But of corse that’s why ready-made solutions like the RPi are so well accepted.


    • Max
      Mar 16, 2015 @ 13:49:44

      As the previous poster noted, it is the exact opposite – nothing about hardware became “simpler”, it only became insanely more complicated. Tools like the Arduino IDE are so succesful exactly because they hide all of that complexity from the user (rather unfortunately hiding most of the actual power of the hardware as well in the process, hence the derision the suffer). Regarding doing things yourself – let’s not forget the “computer” credited as the one that “sparked the microcomputer revolution” (the Altair 8800) came as a DIY kit.

      I think rather the reason RMS has a bias regarding hardware is that software has an intrinsic capacity of having to be created only once but being immediately useful to anyone being allowed to use it, at zero extra cost – which hardware doesn’t have: every single piece of hardware still needs to be manufactured individually and paid for. To be clear, it’s still very important to have the desing itself accessible to everyone, of course – it just doesn’t have the same immediate usefulness that open software has, that’s all.

      Of course, what RMS could hardly foresee was the extraordinary reduction in price that progress and economies of scale brought to the astonishingly cheap yet powerful hardware we have access to today. That mitigated much of the inherent cost-per-copy problem that hardware has, which is why open hardware is so especially important today – not everyone will build their own scanning-tunneling electron microscope, but anyone interested can play with an Arduino or an Olinuxino…


  4. sanyi
    Mar 16, 2015 @ 20:07:38

    For everyone who like Free Hardware can help the opencores comunity to go further with their project to provide us a really open hardware.
    I tried one of their SOC (minisoc) project and it worked for me. The linux kernel have a strong suport for OR1200 (32 bit RISC) CPU.

    “Please help us “revolutionize” the electronic hardware industry and to make the semiconductor giants tremble, by making a donation to design/manufacture an ASIC-component based on the world’s only “true” open-source 32-bit RISC processor supporting Linux (the OpenRISC processor from OpenCores.org). We want to provide an alternative to the profit-hunting semiconductor giants who only provide “cost efficient prices” to large multi-national companies. We want to make it feasible to compete on even and fair conditions, which would be possible if we ALL contribute to create a universal OpenRISC processor ASIC component. This hardware development approached has never been done before in history, and we hope that this first project will start a trend so that we, together, can develop more “true” open-source community-funded SoC ASICs in the future.”

    More you can find on their website


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