Recently a TechRepublic reader sent me a link to this story from Science Daily about a professor (Mark Levoy) of computer science at Stanford who is developing an open source camera. The article tells the story of a fledgling program, Computational Photography, which researches photography to help improve cameras. Mr. Levoy developed the camera so that other computational photographers could help improve the software. His idea is just short of brilliant. And it perfectly illustrates the power of open source. How? Think about it:

  • Man creates hardware/software to help improve a field of study.
  • Man releases hardware/software as open source so others can improve upon the idea.
  • Other’s improve upon the idea.
  • The field grows by leaps and bounds.
  • Consumers reap the benefits.

Can you imagine the possibilities?

Auto maker creates open source car and some hobbyist discovers a means to double the gas mileage.

Cancer center releases their current drug research under the GPL and retired chemist discovers cure for cancer.

Phone developers releases next smart phone as open source and open source developers go crazy making apps to outshine iPhone app store.

The possibilities are limitless. Now don’t think I am nothing more than an idealist who’s head is permanently stuck in the ground. I do get that companies do not do this for one reason:


And I respect that. But fortunately businesses are not the only groups creating new products. Universities are often hotbeds of invention. And it is these universities that could be cranking out these wonderful models of how open source can, in fact, improve upon a design, function, form, etc.

I am sure everyone knows of the solar powered races that go on between college campuses. Often times these solar powered racers are incredibly well designed and hopefully one day will be the inspiration that will drive auto makers to cut the umbilical keeping us tied to the oil industry. And many of the designs of these cars wind up open source. The MIT Solar Electric Vehicle Team is planning to open up the designs and specs of their cars. Imagine the impact this could have on current auto designs and trends? When MIT (or some other university) succeeds in creating a solar powered vehicle that is capable of meeting the needs of today’s user, and opens up the specs and designs of said car, the auto industry will be turned upside down. The improvements to both the automobiles and our quality of life will be vast. All thanks to open source.

For the longest time I was championing open source hardware on principle alone. Finally there is obvious and real benefit (outside of PC software) that the open source model not only works, but works well. The improvements made by the “Frankencamera” are real and will trickle down to the cameras we use every day. I want to see this sort of ideology migrate over to other industries:

  • PC hardware
  • Music/Video industries
  • Bicycling industry
  • Auto industry
  • Battery industry
  • Health care industry
  • Pharmaceutical industry
  • Phone industry

And many others.

What I envision is a mass of products no longer hampered by the limitations of the designers. I want products to do what I want them to do. This is one of the reasons I use open source software. I do not want function and form to be dictated to me by a company that thinks they know precisely how I want to use my hardware. I want to know that if my hardware isn’t working the way I want it to work, then I can make that change.

I want:

  1. To be able to go to a site.
  2. Search through a listing of firmware for my hardware that matches my exact needs.
  3. Download that firmware.
  4. Install that firmware.
  5. Use my hardware in the exact why I want to.

Or better yet…

I want my hardware to have an “app store” so I could just download new functions and features instantly.

Is that asking a lot? Sure it is. Is it impossible? No. Does it make sense from the consumer point of view? Of course. And naturally I understand that the average consumer doesn’t want to have to monkey around with the firmware of their devices. But if their hardware was such that adding features was nothing more complex than adding an application for their iPhone, the public wouldn’t bat an eye in purchasing that hardware.

I have always felt open source is a far-reaching philosophy that could benefit everyone involved. Better products, better consumer relationships, better all around…all thanks to open source.