Opportunity and threat of open source hardware

If Asian programmers are getting the benefits of open source transparency for their work, shouldn't American programmers get the same benefits for what they do best, which is enhance it? Should not Cisco and other device makers be doing everything possible to encourage this creativity?

A story hit the wires today saying 70% of Asian developers now use open source and its use has gone up 40% in just three years.

The story indicates future East Asian hardware will be increasingly based on Linux. It is the transparency of open source code that clinches the deal. The fact that it's cheap and legal is causing governments throughout Asia to support the movement.

This is an enormous opportunity but also a threat.

It's an opportunity because we should soon find more open hardware designs. Programmers can't use wireless as an application platform if the designs and networks are closed. If they can use them, miracles can occur.

The reaction of Cisco to news it had shipped open source code in a Linksys router -- new crippled versions followed -- speaks louder than any Cisco press statement could. The good news is a new WRT54GL (shown), explicitly based on Linux, was finally released. But it was a grudging, one-off concession, and that troubles me.

If Asian programmers are getting the benefits of open source transparency for their work, shouldn't American programmers get the same benefits for what they do best, which is enhance it? Should not Cisco and other device makers be doing everything possible to encourage this creativity?

The threat comes from uncertainty over whether Asian programmers will maintain the open source agreement. The deal is you get code free, but you have to release your own enhancements to the world, including your competitors.

There are no police going through these programmers' code stacks. It's a civil agreement based on consensus. But in the heat of personal and corporate competition, will Asian programmers and companies live up to it?

That's another reason why American hardware operators should embrace open source. If we set an example, and our people benefit, it will encourage others to do the same.