Open Source communication software and hardware have a variety of advantages and disadvantages in the marketplace, in their potential for adoption, and in their requirements for deployment. As a variety of proprietary and open source communication technologies compete for market penetration, the success of either type will have advantages and disadvantages to innovation and the common good. Interestingly, a number of Fortune 500 companies predict that there will be 30 – 75 billion devices connected to the internet, sensor networks, and each other by 2020 in a phenomenon known as the internet of things1. The internet of things (IoT) presents one of the biggest challenges and opportunities for open source communication technology. In this blog post, I will first explore Case Studies in the Digital Fabrication of Open Source Electronic products and unpack the pros and cons of open source communication technology. Next, I will explore the pros and cons of Wig Wag an open source hardware for the IoT. Finally, I will explore the pros and cons of Kaa’s open source middleware for the IoT.
‘Case Studies in the Digital Fabrication of Open-Source Consumer Electronic Products” by David Adley Mellis touches on the pros and cons of open source design in communication technology. His thesis investigates the effect of digital fabrication on the “design, production, and customization of consumer electronic devices,” through a radio, a pair of speakers, a computer mouse, a custom electronic circuit board, and a 3-D printed enclosure2. Interestingly, one lesson that stood out from the workshops of the case was that very few people customized the circuit board or mouse inputs. This suggests that open-source processes it is important to design flexibility into the circuit board itself. These findings from these cases also suggest that open sourcing the design of a laser-cut product “requires additional information about the materials and assembly process” and “requires less specific or diverse expertise2.” Furthermore, the cases imply that open source communication technology can allow for software refinement, skill simplification, customization, and the diffusion of open source hardware products which become the basis for further reproduction or variation. One of the most prominent open source hardware products in communication is called Wig Wag which I will discuss next.
WigWag is a new rule based home automation system which receives communication signals from Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and other protocols to enable “when this, then that” communication with WigWag hardware and 3rd party IoT products2. The WigWag hardware is built on open source embedded operating system Contiki which will enable developers to build out more “when this, then that” functions of their own. For instance, developers could customize WigWag so that when the light enters the home, it triggers the blinds to come down. Furthermore, developers could customize WigWag that when the vibration sensor feels a car pull into the garage, it will trigger the garage door to close. The pros of this open source system is that it enables innovation across the smart home sector with developers everywhere customizing their own automated systems. Another benefit is that entrepreneurs with no experience in developing hardware can now enter this technologically sophisticated market and attempt to cut out a niche for their solution. However, the cons are that commercializing such customizations will be tough against IP-protected players such as Nest which senses the temperature in the home and adjusts it accordingly. Although they also offer open source firmware, commercializing any customized innovations would also require open source software capabilities.
Kaa is an open source middleware platform for implementing IoT solutions, connected applications, and smart products. The platform can collect data, manage devices, and adapt to personalized configuration if deployed into the cloud through Amazon Web Services or another provider. The Kaa platform can be used with minimum addition code on developers and as a result this platform inspires much innovation in the IoT. In fact, the Kaa platform can be used to monitor usage, and sensor data from WigWag hardware if integrated correctly. Similar to the other open source solutions, Kaa can be implemented with very little work or skill on behalf of the entrepreneur. However, these entrepreneurs will be competing against venture backed start-ups with full time software engineers who can continuously offer software updates through the cloud to customers and features that open source product developers may not have the time or skill to compete with. Moreover, with such low barriers to entry any other low skilled entrepreneur could enter the market and eat away at their market share.
All in all, open source communication technology is an exciting and rapidly growing industry with advantages and disadvantages, especially in the internet of things. Open source solutions opens up opportunities for low skilled entrepreneurs to develop solutions in such a technologically sophisticated field, and it dramatically enables innovations because of the low barriers to entry. However, these same low barriers to entry make it easier for low skilled entrepreneurs to enter the market quickly. Furthermore, open source communication technology requires much more documentation, and much more competition because IP-protected IoT companies will be targeting customers who are willing to pay more money for a more frequently updated, more professionally secured, and more robust products.