3D Robotics

Does open source undermine innovation?

Krzysztof "Chris" Bosak made some important and interesting points regarding the effect of open source on the overall health of the industry in a comment on another thread yesterday, and I thought they deserved to be discussed more fully (although there are many good comments in that thread, and I'd encourage you to check out that, too). So I'll give them their own thread, starting with my own thoughts. First, here are some key points from Krzysztof's post: "Marketing that you can make Ardupilot for $25, $50, $100 is like making the others look like the monsters of greed, while declaring the work of software developer is worth NULL, while not necessarily leading to the creation of competitive product in the long term." All this has one effect: creates artificially crafted virtual reference point for price,that is used to dramatically weaken the public perception or the makers of complex electronics, without even making the makers of cheap solutions incredibly rich. At the end there is no progress, as the advance of open source is usually quickly swamped by absence of professional regression testing and all the things nobody would do for free." At the same time, I noticed a New York Times article today that suggest that almost nobody has found a successful business model for open source. Together, these raise the question of whether open source does more harm than good to innovation, and whether it will ultimately lead to a sustainable industrial model for consumers and developers alike. Needless to say, I believe that the open source development model, while not perfect, is the best one for overall innovation. But Krzysztof raises some valid concerns, which I'll tackle one by one: 1) Claims by open source developers about features and pricing tend to be unrealistic and serve to kill demand for higher-priced commercial products. I think there's some truth to this. Because open source development is done, by definition, in public, there is a lot of discussion about the broad ambitions of the project in the early stages, both to attract participation and to define the broad scope of the project. Not everything an open source project sets out to do is ultimately achieved, as the developers get into the hard work of executing. In contrast, commercial projects are usually developed in private and only revealed when the feature set is pretty much confirmed. The consequence of this is that the entry of an ambitious open source project can "freeze the market" while people wait to see if they can deliver. This is not good for the more cautious commercial players in that space. As for pricing, open source hardware projects tend to be on the far low end, due to a general philosophy (which I share) not to charge for intellectual property. Our own policy is to charge 2.6 times the cost of the hardware (this allows one 40% margin for us and another 40% margin for our retail partners), but some other open source hardware companies charge just 1.5x cost. It's very hard for those who charge for intellectual property to compete with these prices. 2) Open source tends to "de-monitize" a market, eliminating the potential for anyone to make money. In the short term, this can certainly seem to be the case. But if you believe in demand elasticity, as I do, you would expect the lower price to vastly increase demand, growing the market for all. So it's a tradeoff between high margins and high volume. In the case of ArduPilot, where the core board costs just $25 (something Krzysztof objects to, because it sets a consumer expectation that autopilots should be very cheap), we have sold about 2,000 boards this year, which makes it the best-selling amateur-level autopilot in the world by a wide margin. Although nobody make much money from those boards, the economic value around all the other parts you need to create an functioning autopilot is significant. Say there are now 500 complete ArduPilot systems out there now. That's about $800,000 in total spending (between us and our partners). Assume total margins (between wholesale and retail) are around 50%, that means $400,000 of profit in the first year. I suspect that's more than any of the commercial autopilot companies in this space can claim. Because you're charging for "atoms", not bits, open source hardware can be profitable in the way that open source software cannot, because the customer relationship starts with the assumption of paying for something. 3) Open source can't create products of equal quality to closed source, because nobody's getting rich. I think that Firefox, Linux and MySQL users would disagree with this, as would I. It's true that many open source project never achieve professional-quality polish, but that's mostly an issue of poor project management and leadership. I think you only have to look at the work HappyKillmore did on the ArduPilot configuration utility, or how Mike Black improved our GCS to see this: I'd argue that both are better than any of the ground station and configuration utilities from the commercial players in our space (and some, including Flexipilot, don't have groundstations at all). Note that these contributions were made not because someone was getting paid, but because the contributors had their own reasons to want better software. And because we set an open source standard, they chose to share their work so that others could build on it. So, to sum up: I understand why commercial developers dislike the entry of an open source project into their market and hope it will fail. But the trend lines are clear on this one: open source is here to stay and is spreading, mostly because it leads to more, cheaper products faster. ArduPilot, for example. went from concept to maturity (with the 2.5 code, now in the hands of beta testers) in a year, including a full suite of supporting tools. There is no commercial autopilot that has come close to that speed of development. And as the DIY Drones community grows and our tools of group development improve, we are extending that to a host of new products created by the members here. To hire this many engineers would be ruinous, but by creating a community of shared interest and a culture of collaboration, we can do so at almost no cost at all. It's really quite magical. Can commercial companies compete with this? I think they can, by offering more "plug and play" solutions, as Krzysztof has done with EasyUAV. Don't try to sell expensive apples to compete with our cheap apples; instead, sell oranges, with shiny bows on top. There's a market for both, and I think commercial developers would do well to find ways to do things that open source can't or don't do well, rather than just wishing that we'd go away.
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  • Moderator
    Very well put Ty!
  • Open source is here to stay. Adapt or perish.
    As long as some guy is working away on his pet project in his garage, and discussing it with his friends, open source will be alive and well.
    Adapt or perish.

    I'm probably the least qualified guy to comment on this stuff. I don't have a working AP yet, my airframe is currently in pieces (I need to update that thread), and my engineering and subject expertise can be measured on the head of a pin. However, I've got my opinion and viewpoints, and strangely I've been musing about these issues a lot over the last couple of weeks.

    First, there is the question of "Evil Open Source". It's bunk.
    If a company is going to charge "X" amount for a product, then there should be a reason behind that "X". If another company comes along and charges 1/2X, then everyone will sit up and take notice. One of the first questions that is asked is "Why should I pay X instead of 1/2X?" Valid question. Mr. Bosak, you need to be able to answer that question to have a successful business. Similarly, Mr. Anderson, you need to make a case for why the customer is getting value for their money. If Mr. Anderson's product cannot work without a high level of technical expertise, trial, and additional polish, then a market niche for both products becomes evident. If the Anderson product rarely works, or has other extremely undesirable qualities, then it doesn't matter what the price point is, it will not be adopted, unless the higher priced product also has these same issues.

    Open source is a realm for rapid innovation and communal examination. Frequently this examination is not done at any real depth (Let's face it, how many people here are making sure that their mods and software is capable of working on multiple airframes and systems?) or consistency. There are very loose standards, and it can be difficult to get innovators to provide support.
    The flip side: For-Profit systems. Typically well tested across the user environment, documentation exists for almost everything, and if something goes wrong you can get support for the product. You may not have access to the source code, you may not have access to the documentation for the source code, and the support may not be what you expect (How often have we been told "Not our product's problem, but your implementation of the product").

    I'm going with an ArduPilot (eventually) for a number of different issues. These are the issues that Closed-Source companies should really examine. First, I purchase something and I want to own it. I want to modify it, I want it to do things that I want it to do. I used to be in the very quiet minority. Now, thanks to the internet, I have a fantastic collaborative community to play with. I can examine the web for ideas, and post my own up and get almost instant feedback.
    Second, I want my tools and toys to grow with me. As I learn more about a given hobby/occupation, I would rather have "stuff" that is going to allow me to do more, as I learn more about it. It touches on the above, but is a separate point (in my mind).
    Third, there is a price issue out there. If I can cheaply get a product that will let me modify it (to the point of breaking it), then I'm going to have to seriously consider that one.

    The interesting thing about this particular open source product is that it appears to be competitive to expensive systems. This week alone I've heard two negative comments about the ArduPilot from other companies. Not necessarily about the product, but about the threat it represents. It's interesting to me, because the whole project appears to be about as non-commercial as you can get. No dedicated support, certainly no immediate tech support. Instead it offers a basic hardware package (Who came up with the $25 number? I'm still looking at over $200 for a full system), AND a forum largely staffed with volunteers.

    Finally, I hope that the competing organizations have an airframe with an ArduPilot on it. The system is cheap (you say so yourselves), and appears to offer enough features that it is competitive. Learn from it. Innovate from it. Make your products better. Hell, support the ArduPilot project as a part of your corporate efforts. Show your clients the ArduPilot. Then show them the support and out-of-the-box capability that your product demonstrates. Show the expertise that you have, building the exact product that the client wants, and the ability to keep it going, with little effort on their part. That's why you can charge a premium. On this, I can speak from real operational experience.
  • 3D Robotics
    Marty, you wrote "The other thing is that sometimes I wish that Ardupilot was run semi commercially. My reasoning for that is that both chris and jordi are very busy people....It's getting better now with the workgroups but I would pay twice as much for Ardupilot to get greater support and greater fleshing out of the existing hardware and gcs."

    This is the beauty of open source. If someone want to start a business offering a more polished or better supported version of ArduPilot or our other products, they're free to do so. There are no restrictions on the commercial use of our hardware or software designs. You don't expect Linus Torvalds to handle your Linux support; that's what Red Hat is for.
  • My view on open source vs commercial products is that the open source stuff sets the bar which the commercial vendors will have to jump over in order to succeed. They must add value and continue to innovate in order to stay in business, like it or not. Opensource only undermine re-inventors of the wheel so to say.
  • Heh, thanks Chris, sorry about that, I was looking for the shield eagle files and couldn't find them, presumed it was the same for the ardupilot.
  • 3D Robotics
    Stephen, perhaps you could have actually done some research before getting on that high horse. The Eagle files are here, released alongside the board. Sparkfun makes it, not us.
  • @HappyKillmore
    No need to wait for the Wired article, I suspect that Chris has let the cat out of the bag regarding his insightful and timely analysis of 'atoms' versus 'bits' in his book, "Free: The Future of a Radical Price"......http://www.amazon.com/Free-Future-Radical-Chris-Anderson/dp/1401322...

    Money and Knowledge are power. I suspect we all reasonably get along by working our jobs and will be content, mostly so, until retirement - odds are against becoming independently wealthy. Knowledge on the hand is a power we can attain by brute force if necessary, no lotto, no scheme....just sheer determination. Knowledge satisfies the soul, it is a thirst that can't be quenched. I can think of no where else on the web where a collection of incredibly knowledgeable, experienced and capable people exist, and, most importantly are easily accessible. I spend 1 to 2 hours a day reading DIYdrones and probably as much time surfing the net for supporting spin off information. It makes me a better person, more analytical, more open to the unexpected, more appreciative of the creativity of others. I can't put a price on that. Every cool thing that gets posted, I find myself saying, WOW, how cool, how did they do that, what makes it work, how might I make it better...Knowledge for Knowledge's sake in it's purest form....participication in open source is it's own reward.

    Regarding 'So I submit that Open Source is more efficient than the laws it circumvents. The reasonable reaction for government is to recalibrate regulation to be competitive or suffer the lost taxation and absence of IP reflected in GDP.'

    Insightful conclusion into the mindset of a technologically oppresive government. That government would base its view using a flawed assumption that the IP would have ever existed in the economy in the first place or is taking away from what is already there. Dollar Stores are kind of like open source hardware/software, I can buy an ice cream scooper for a buck, throw it in a drawer and use it 5 times a year, or I can buy a $7 version at the Department Store. The latter is much better, shinier, stronger but I wouldn't buy it I'll use a spoon. Having purchased the $1 scooper did not make one bit a difference on the Department Stores sales. If I was the President, there would handfulls of Arduino or ArduPilot or BlimpDuino at every jr and sr school in the country. The last thing I would do is tax people to death.
  • I need to go to bed, so I will make some hasty comments here.

    FlightGear has been my baby since the start ... way back when I was a young pup in 1996. (It is an open-source flight simulator that has been mentioned here on occasion.) FlightGear doesn't directly make any money, but the contacts and connections and opportunities that FlightGear has opened up for me has in one way or another led to all the paying work I currently do. That has been especially important to me over the past year and a half since I was downsized out of my university job.

    Currently I'm working on MicroGear, an open-source research/virtual uav autopilot controller. I've just closed the loop with FlightGear acting as the sensor head (imu + gps) and the actuator target. This means I can do "real time" hardware or software in the loop testing that is very closely coupled with FlightGear right here on my work bench -- and all the -ism's I've seen in real life UAV flights running this code are showing up in flightgear as I change weather conditions and try different things, so it should be a great platform to push forward with further development and refinements.

    Here's a completely random observation. There have been a couple situations where I've gotten on my knees to beg and plead for key/experienced flightgear developers to help me with a paying project, and more often than not, I can't find someone who has the availability or the desire to do paid work, along with having the requisite experience. When people do something for fun for too long, I guess they hesitate to do the same thing for pressure and deadlines and hesitate to take the risk if it could impact their performance in their stable full time job.

    Speaking more generally, I feel that open-source cracks open the magic black box. It exposes the data behind the science (to use a poorly timed and poorly chosen analogy) :-) In many ways it can level the playing field and change the level of the playing field.

    I respect Krzysztof's progress towards a functional system, he's clearly learned a lot and overcome many obstacles. And to get something flying successfully, even a simple system like the ardupilot is a great achievement, and Krzysztof has gone far beyond the ardupilot in many ways. But like all of us, he has room for improvement. When I watched his flight video, I was impressed with how well his attitude determination filter converged in roll, but did anyone pay attention to pitch? No one here in the hobby uav community seems to be able to converge to true yaw heading. I want to see a video of someone flying their pattern with full rudder deflection and the true heading of the aircraft converged to within +/- 5 degrees of reality ... and I'm not talking gps ground track here, I'm talking about the direction the nose is pointed.

    Krzysztof can have his opinions of open source which have some validity and he's welcome to share them, and hey, if it sparks a good discussion, all the better. But face it, the person that's going to have the best chance at being successful in some particular market place is going to be the person that does the best work and produces the best product. That's not the only factor of course. We are all trying to scratch out a living here, and when it comes to purchases, we have to spend within our meager living that we've scratched out ... so it's a tough world and it takes something extra and something special to rise above the herd.

    So my advice is to compete by working the hardest and being the best. You can be successful with a 100% proprietary product, but you can also be successful surrounding an open-source product. If you don't end up where you hoped to be, blaming open-source is a poor excuse. I could go on and on, but that's probably enough for now.... :-)
  • @ Stephen

    I have the eagle files. I got them without a problem. Chris is not trying to hide anything or stop you from doing anything. They are freely available, so you may want to ask before accusing in the future.... I dont understand why your even here if you are so unhappy? Maybe your frustrated at your own lack of progress?
  • Eagle files please? I wish to revise the design, not build it..
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