Last night we sat down for dinner with a company that, with the use of open source hardware, intends to invert the top down consumer electronics market as we know it -- a lofty goal, no doubt. But when Bug Labs (based in New York) introduces their modular gadget kits later this year, end users (read: tech enthusiasts) will be able buy interchangeable electronics components with a common interface capable of mixing, matching, and building custom devices (without having to lift a soldering iron). Sounds kind of out there, but here's the model:
- Users snag a small Linux-based micro-PC with USB, WiFi, Bluetooth, and plenty of special ports for attaching these functionality modules.
- Users can develop Java apps and load custom software onto the base device to take advantage of expansion modules for any usage scenarios they can dream up.
- Users expand each portable's capabilities by adding modules, such as a small or large screen, QWERTY keyboard, GPS, camera, speaker, etc.; the user can add whatever is necessary to build the gadget that fits their purpose. (Sorry, no cell radio modules at launch.)
- Each component is accessible and web addressable, meaning users can write and load software to / from their own or other users' components, as well as share their functionality or data (i.e. user A can use an app to remotely share his / her GPS locator or digital camera with user B).
- Of course, all these hardware component schematics, interface protocols, etc. will be made available online if you want to build your own Bug-based gear.
- Bug Labs might also allow users to submit novel and relatively marketable configurations for mass manufacturing, and serve as a storefront for budding gadget designers using the Bug platform.
Will a DIY open source hardware hacker's kit ever be enough to enable Joe Blow to develop the next RAZR or iPod? Probably not to start; effective portable electronics requires a very vertical design process, but if CE development is ever going to be democratized the way software development was over 30 years ago, then clear and open source components and systems is the kind of approach that could be capable of doing it.