Why Tech Companies Are Letting Others Use Their Designs

Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In a tech market that’s more competitive than ever before, an increasing number of big tech companies are making a surprising move: making their designs open source. Quentin Hardy reports for The New York Times that a new generation of tech companies are sharing their secrets instead of keeping their designs and technologies proprietary. These are the kinds of ideas that used to be valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. But to these tech companies, the opportunity to move projects and data quickly eclipses the value of developing everything in secret. “You now don’t need a lot of people or a lot of capital to manufacture a prototype,” Jay Parikh, vice president for connectivity at Facebook, told the Times. “The entire world is going to accelerate its technology development.”

Facebook has shared its designs for data storage, computer servers, and rack designs, and has seen rapid improvements as a result. Rather than building and testing a small number of designs, Facebook can see dozens of variations that individuals and companies can manufacture inexpensively. Parikh said that Facebook will donate tech ideas for “telecommunications carriers, to make them reach more people.”

The idea of sharing ideas has been commonplace in the software world for decades. Hardy points out that open source projects like the Linux operating system both revolutionized the Internet and tripped up companies like Sun Microsystems. Hardware has traditionally been a more difficult and more expensive business to enter until a few years ago, but affordable prototyping services have changed that. PCH International, a company headquartered in San Francisco, has made more than 1,000 prototypes for big companies and small startups in the past 18 months. It makes between 20 and 40 3D-printed objects each day, and creates more than 50 working prototypes each week.

The global ubiquity of smartphones gave rise to an industry of semiconductor producers making affordable chips and sensors, the abundance of which helped create the hobbyist drone industry and assisted in popularizing robotics. Global connectivity enables developers to share ideas, and events such as the Maker Faire attract thousands of participants who show off what they’ve been building. “The Arduino microcontroller, drones, 3-D printers, the Raspberry Pi — people share designs and information on all these things,” said Dale Dougherty, creator of the Maker Faire. “A lot of companies are adopting this mind-set, too.”

Dougherty says that when companies make hardware free, the move isn’t usually altruistic. It can create competition for a company’s rivals without an investment into a new product. For example, when IBM offered open-source software in the 1990s, Microsoft suffered. Facebook’s open designs have made possible commercial relationships that serve both to lower its supply costs and to speed the process of innovation. And last June, Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk said that he was giving away all of the company’s electric car patents “in the spirit of the open-source movement.”

Musk wrote at the time, “Technology leadership is not defined by patents, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers.” Tesla hopes that sharing its patents will both spur consumer acceptance and provide the foundation for a network of supporting businesses, like car charging stations and mechanics, which would help Tesla’s sales. Since Tesla open-sourced its patents, there have been more and better electric cars, and independent engineers have contacted the company with design ideas. And Facebook has begun installing lithium ion batteries in its data centers, thanks in part to the work Tesla has done, and shared, on the technology.

But Hardy notes that tech companies won’t make all their designs free and ideas open. Facebook won’t disclose information like its business plans or how much of its ad technology uses artificial intelligence, and there are some things it will still patent. Dougherty said, “There are competing goals here, protecting and sharing. You have to figure out where you are in a business and what you want to own.”

The other side of the shift toward open source is wrapped up in another tendency of big tech companies: their propensity to buy other, smaller tech companies. Analyst Jason Verge recently reported for Data Center Knowledge that some think that the open source and proprietary worlds are converging, while others see them clashing. Open source is going mainstream, and many companies that have historically stuck to proprietary tech are either making meaningful contributions to open source projects, or buying smaller companies that have built businesses around open source. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Apple has acquired FoundationDB, a formerly open source startup that developed database technology to quickly crunch massive amounts of information.

Verge explains that the open source community was upset by the acquisition, and by the prospect that more such acquisitions are likely on the horizon. “In each of these deals between two companies, there is a third party present: the community,” says Verge. “Commercial needs and community needs are sometimes at odds.”

Much of the momentum behind open source projects, and large vendors’ implementations of them, is driven by the popularity of the projects among users, who can influence the direction of the technologies without being locked into a specific vendor’s platform. A successful open source project around a piece of technology generally creates an ecosystem of users and vendors.

Cade Metz recently reported for Wired that when Facebook first decided to open source the designs for the computer hardware that would help it streamline its vast server farms, that decision seemed idealistic and impractical to many. In 2011, Facebook founded the Open Compute Project, the non-profit that oversees Facebook’s effort to share hardware across the tech industry. But four years later, the idea has played out exactly as the social networking giant had said it would. Apple recently joined the effort, along with Microsoft, Rackspace, Goldman Sachs, Fidelity, and Bank of America. The company has changed the way that Internet companies consume the hardware on which they run, and the way that many hardware companies build and sell it. Metz notes that the hardware market “isn’t what it once was.”

Major tech companies are increasingly learning from and contributing to open source projects. And in turn, they’re creating technologies that they could eventually share with the community. That would benefit anyone building hardware or online services — demonstrating that the new wave of open source isn’t as altruistic as we’d idealistically like to believe.

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