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Are we doing free hardware right?

Submitted by reposter in freeAsInFreedom

The free hardware movement has existed along side of the free software movement for some time. It has had some notable successes (3d printers come to mind) and some notable failures (Purism).

There are two principal issues with the free hardware movement today: Using proprietary parts and failing to innovate The fundamental problem with using proprietary parts is that every day the bond between hardware and software grows stronger, and the bond between pieces of hardware becomes stronger as well. Unless you are able to free EVERY SINGLE PIECE of hardware you use, there will be issues with your products freedom.

A very notable example: the Bus Pirate is one of my favorite toys for reverse engineering. The designs are all published, and anyone can buy the parts and build their own, it is even completely solderable by hand. The firmware source is published on their git repo so anyone can make their own changes, but there is one problem. The Bus Pirate uses a PIC microcontroller, which requires a proprietary compiler, thus, I could not modify the firmware in freedom, even if I had all the other pieces.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and until EVERY PIECE has ALL the specifications published, the device cannot be truly free. NDAs are a similar problem, I would advise everyone reading this to avoid ever agreeing to one, as it makes it completely impossible to pass the freedom you receive on to anyone using your product. The second problem with the free hardware movement is lack of innovation.

I refer specifically to using old hardware because newer hardware has more freedom restricting features. I am writing this post on a Lenovo T400. It is a very nice machine, It runs libreboot, has very few blobs as free hardware goes. But I cannot buy a newer Lenovo laptop becuase new Intel CPUs are incapable of running free BIOS.

There is lots of old hardware that is readily available for reverse engineering to make it free, and this can be very useful for some things (RockBox). But be mindful that you don't create a large number of users encumbered by the fact that newer hardware will never arrive. In conclusion, we need hardware manufacturers who are willing to build products, however small, that will be %100 devoted to being free from the ground up. That will begin to rebuild the free hardware community to be truly stable.

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edmund_the_destroyer wrote (edited )

Doesn't this all boil down to the same central problem: lack of resources? All the giant tech companies can dump tens of millions or more into their hardware projects, sometimes billions.

The free hardware movement has thousands of motivated contributors but nobody involved can afford that kind of investment. So people are using proprietary parts because there isn't enough money to develop open alternatives, and people are failing to innovate because there isn't enough money or time to innovate while you work another job to pay for food.

I think one of the most exciting projects in the world right now is the "Global Village Construction Set" or "Open Source Ecology" project. It has the potential to revolutionize the lives of billions, especially for the poor. And the whole project probably has a lower annual budget than a typical cigarette shop.

Problems like this are what drove me towards communist and anarchist ideas. Capitalism provides an irresistible incentive for businesses to invest only in proprietary hardware - which is why the thousands of companies with the money to back a free-as-in-freedom alternative to existing proprietary products won't spend a cent to do it.