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Open Source Hardware

Can the open-source model be extended beyond software? It already has. In speaking today with Indian scholar Deepak Phatak, I learned about the "Simputer," introduced in 1998 and licensed under the Simputer General Public License, an open-source license developed for hardware.
Can the open-source model be extended beyond software? It already has. In speaking today with Indian scholar Deepak Phatak, I learned about the "Simputer," introduced in 1998 and licensed under the Simputer General Public License, an open-source license developed for hardware.Phatak is in the process of creating an open-source society in India. New Zealand has its own open-source society specifically advocating the use of open-source software. Phatak proposes to take his further, pushing industry and academia to develop new open source models that would govern the assembly of, say, a car or a popular computing platform.

"There's no model for this today, although we have a group in Bangalore that designed an open-source computer," says Phatak, the Subrao M. Nilekani Chair Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology's Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology.

The simputer was conceived as part of an international seminar on IT for developing countries held in Bangalore. Two companies - Encore Software Ltd. and PicoPeta Simputers Pvt. Ltd.-- are already shipping simputers. Both companies are based in Bangalore and sell devices that start at about $200, run on a RISC-based 206 MHz Intel StrongArm SA-1110 CPU, and feature up to 64 MB of synchronous DRAM.

Under the SGPL, any individual or company can download the simputer hardware specification, PCB layout details, the bill of materials, etc., free of charge as long as they abide by the license. According to the license, "Any derivative work has to come back to the Trust to allow for further dissemination. To allow the commercial exploitation of the derived work, a one year delay in putting back the derived work is permitted. This does not however preclude others from independently engineering a similar derivative work during this period."

The goal of the simputer is to provide technology to people around the world who are missing out because they can't afford a PC with all of the trimmings. These devices have yet to set the market on fire, but it will be interesting to see how they evolve with the rest of the open source model.