Newspaper article International New York Times

Innovation without All the Secrecy ; Tech Firms Share Designs in Hopes That Openness Will Build New Markets

Newspaper article International New York Times

Innovation without All the Secrecy ; Tech Firms Share Designs in Hopes That Openness Will Build New Markets

Article excerpt

Companies like Facebook and Tesla Motors have followed the lead of open-source software, making public hardware designs possibly worth millions of dollars.

Facebook showed plans last week for drone aircraft that beam lasers carrying high-speed data to remote parts of the world.

As powerful as that sounds, Facebook already has something that could be even more potent: extensive sharing of its once- proprietary information, the kind of thing that would bring a traditional Silicon Valley patent lawyer to tears.

Facebook is not alone. Technology for big computers, electric cars and microcontrollers to operate things like power tools and engines is now given away.

These ideas used to be valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. To the new generation of technologists, however, moving projects and data fast is worth more than making everything in secret.

"You now don't need a lot of people or a lot of capital to manufacture a prototype," said Jay Parikh, vice president for connectivity at Facebook. "The entire world is going to accelerate its technology development."

Facebook has already shared designs for data storage, computer servers and rack designs, among other hardware, Mr. Parikh said, and has seen rapid improvements as a result.

Rather than just building and testing a handful of designs, Facebook gets to see dozens of variations that individuals and companies manufacture inexpensively. They often contract with prototype makers over marketplaces like the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, or they may even use 3-D printers.

It is too early to say if Facebook's drone technology will be shared, but Mr. Parikh said his company would donate tech ideas for "telecommunications carriers, to make them reach more people."

Of course, the swapping of ideas has been commonplace for decades in software engineering. Open-source projects like the Linux operating system revolutionized the Internet and tripped up companies like Sun Microsystems.

Hardware was considered a tougher and more expensive business to enter, however, until a few years ago. PCH International, an Irish company with a development lab in San Francisco, has in the last 18 months made more than 1,000 prototypes for both big companies and small start-ups. The San Francisco lab makes 20 to 40 objects churned out by 3-D printers a day and over 50 working prototypes a week.

Along with cheap prototyping, the global explosion of cellphones changed things. A semiconductor maker turning out 100 million chips or sensors for a phone does not spend much more producing an additional million.

Enormous global connectivity also makes it possible for developers of all kinds to find one another and share ideas, even large video and schematics files. In 2006, about 18,000 people attended the first Maker Faire, where participants showed off what they were making in their sheds, held in the San Francisco Bay Area. …

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