Vendors hindering open-source hardware development

Taking proprietary approach too far is limiting the industry, says Neil McAllister

Enterprising hardware hackers managed another coup recently, successfully installing a version of the open source DD-WRT firmware on the latest revision of the Linksys WRT54G wireless router.

The WRT54G became something of a fan’s favourite a few years ago, when Linksys released the source code to the router’s Linux-based firmware. Since then, a number of custom variations on the original have appeared that add features Linksys never intended, of which DD-WRT is arguably the best.

Recent shipments of the WRT54G have been problematic, however. The model number is the same and the factory-stock feature set hasn’t changed, but the underlying hardware is different. Newer units have less RAM, for one thing. What’s more, they don’t run Linux any more. Instead, they are based on a version of Wind River’s VxWorks embedded OS.

To be fair, Linksys still markets a Linux-powered version of the router, now known as the WRT54GL. But the custom firmware community sees this as a half-hearted acknowledgment of its efforts at best.

Undaunted, the hackers of the DD-WRT project knew that even though the newer version of the router was underpowered, it was still capable of more than what its stock firmware provided. With a little ingenuity, they were able to load it with a custom version of DD-WRT that fitted into its smaller RAM footprint. And so, modified firmware fans had something to smile about once again.

Why does it have to be this way?

Linksys is missing out on a larger opportunity here. The features that alternative firmwares add to the WRT54G series aren’t mere hobbyist curiosities — they’re real-world enhancements that give the hardware new features, for gaming, security, network management or VoIP. Some of these are features that are otherwise only available with more expensive products from Linksys’ competitors.

If anything, these third-party enhancements have already saved the Linksys product from commoditisation. Dozens of other vendors market wireless routers with comparable basic functionality to Linksys’ offering. The difference is that the Linksys product can be made to do more.

So, instead of dismissing the hobbyist community with regard to its products, why doesn’t Linksys embrace it? Instead of charging extra for special versions of its products, it could sponsor a developer programme and give discounts on hardware to interested programmers. It could even sponsor an open-source firmware project of its own, and incorporate community contributions into future shipping versions of the router. The fact that DD-WRT now runs on the less powerful, newer versions of the WRT54G proves there are some pretty clever hardware hackers out there, and Linksys is missing out.

Open source is changing the way that organisations and individuals develop, evaluate and purchase software. Why shouldn’t hardware follow suit?

For yesterday’s vendors, product development was something of a gamble: the successes made money, while the failures quietly disappeared. Tomorrow’s companies will recognise that it’s possible to develop new products as an on-going collaboration with customers, where the community of users helps to refine and improve the basic design in ways the manufacturer may not have foreseen.

The process is already taking place, albeit mostly behind the scenes. If more forward-thinking vendors would step up to the challenge, community-driven hardware could become the norm, rather than a niche.

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