Open hardware specs seem to be catching on. After the OpenMoko released CAD design files for all of its handsets, Via's gone and done the same thing with its new OpenBook. It's only the outside that's being released as an open design, but that's not a bad start.
The OpenBook site spells it out like this:
The external panel CAD files for the VIA OpenBook Reference Design are being released under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 license giving customers the flexibility to bring their own innovative style and brand value propositions to the Mini-Note market segment. This also helps customers reduce product development costs and speed time-to-market.
As an old song once put it, "Nice, nice, very nice." But it's only the tip of the iceberg, really. I suspect that once you give people a taste of what's possible, they're going to demand the whole tamale -- not just the external design, but the internal boards, the BIOS, everything. If you're going to open up, why not open up all the way? Of course, the final choice rests with Via, or any other manufacturer; they're not morally obliged to release everything they do. But as they do so, they raise expectations for what's possible, and give other people an incentive to compete by offering more.
One possible road I see with this is whole market segments of computing products that are based entirely on common, shared designs (instead of, say, being reverse-engineered), with the competition coming from who best implements a given design. Give two different construction companies the exact same blueprint for a house and you won't get the same house twice -- they're each going to use different materials, labor and foremen with different work experience, work on different schedules, and so on.
I'm further convinced that we're now seeing changes in the way hardware is created and marketed that emulate the way open source software has been produced -- not just in the sense of making things available for other people to re-use, but in the sense of how that changes where the real innovation will be taking place. There's always going to be room for people like Apple, whose designs are patented (i.e., closed) but typically groundbreaking. But there also ought to be a place for folks like Via, where the design is just a place to start.