Bunnie Huang: the best days of open hardware are yet to come

Bunnie Huang blogs his recent Open Hardware Summit talk on the future of open hardware. Bunnie says that open hardware stands to grow from a niche in the global hardware market to an important segment, thanks to phenomena like "heirloom laptops" (and boy, isn't that a provocative coinage!?).

Someday, you cannot rely on buying a faster computer next year. Your phone won’t get any smaller or more powerful. And the flash drive you buy next year will cost the same yet store the same number of bits. The idea of an “heirloom laptop” may sound preposterous today, but someday we may perceive our computers as cherished and useful looms to hand down to our children as part of our legacy.

This slowing trend is good for small businesses, and likewise open hardware practices. To see why this is the case, let’s revisit the plot of Moore’s Law versus linear improvement, but this time overlay two new scenarios: technology doubling once every 24 and 36 months...

In the post-Moore’s law future, FPGAs may find themselves performing respectably to their hard-wired CPU kin, for at least two reasons: the flexible yet regular structure of an FPGA may lend it a longer scaling curve, in part due to the FPGA’s ability to reconfigure circuits around small-scale fluctuations in fabrication tolerances, and because the extra effort to optimize code for hardware acceleration will amortize more favorably as CPU performance scaling increasingly relies upon difficult techniques such as massive parallelism. After all, today’s massively multicore CPU architectures are starting to look a lot like the coarse-grain FPGA architectures proposed in academic circles in the mid to late 90’s. An equalization of FPGA to CPU performance should greatly facilitate the penetration of open hardware at a very deep level.

There will be a rise in repair culture as technology becomes less disposable and more permanent. Replacing worn out computer parts five years from their purchase date won’t seem so silly when the replacement part has virtually the same specifications and price as the old part. This rise in repair culture will create a demand for schematics and spare parts that in turn facilitates the growth of open ecosystems and small businesses.

(via Make)


  1. This will be even truer when some disparate parts of the computer hardware community start to come closer together.  The microchips that are designed to work in your car (breaks, engine, etc.) are designed to work for 10-20 years over a large range of environmental conditions.  This is not true of the CPU in your laptop/PC…yet.  Once this slowdown starts, I could easily see some of this stuff trickling down.
    Although, since I work in the field, I feel as if this opinion might not be entirely accurate.  I see lots of new advances coming down the track that promise to keep Moore’s Law going, or at least something like it (more generalized, calculations per area) going.  Memristors, PCM, quantum computing, 3D ICs, continual shrinkage, and yes, FPGAs…I don’t see the trend of 2x the power every two-ish years going anywhere any time soon.  

    1. Moorse law may continue, but for some applications it won’t matter (much like those in your breaks). What purpose would a CPU upgrade in my Kindle serve?

      1. Well, that’s the thing:  I will always want my Kindle-sized device to be able to do more things.  If it can read books, I’m going to want it to play video.  When it can play video, why not games too?  

      2. “What purpose would a CPU upgrade in my Kindle serve?”

        Perhaps something as limited as an e-reader will just become almost pointless, like an adding machine.

        1. “Perhaps something as limited as an e-reader will just become almost pointless, like an adding machine.”

          Only if reading itself becomes pointless. 

    2. Automotive-grade hardware is robust, to be sure (I know – I design it), but it is expensive and several generations behind the curve compared to consumer electronics when it comes to processing speeds, memory, and storage. It’s also distinctly not user-friendly, being even more tamperproof and hard to get to than consumer electronics (some of which is already fiendishly difficult to take apart).

      If you want your phone to still be free with your data plan, or want it to be no more than a few hundred bucks SIM-free, I’m not certain automotive-spec is the way to go.

      Also 10 years, sure. 20 years… ehh, not so sure.

  2. There’s several problems with this concept but I’ll give you the main one. Consumer electronics are loaded with surface mounted components on the circuit boards. That includes PCs. The capacitors especially have a limited lifetime rated in operating hours at a certain temperature. Higher temperature rated capacitors with extended life are available but, in consumer products where pennies count,  don’t look for them. The cost to shotgun such parts can easily exceed the cost of a new computer. Anything beyond a five year life should be taken as a gift of circumstance.

    1. Surface mount rework can and is done effectively, accurate schematics and precise de- and re- soldering skills being the key.

    2. There are lots of electronics already switching to COB (Chip on Board) designs.

      Components are being converged and finally “computer on a chip” is starting to become a reality.

      So, Computer on a Chip on Board will soon be a reality for many devices (like tablets and ultra light laptops). They will be very durable.

  3. someday we may perceive our computers as cherished and useful looms to hand down to our children as part of our legacy.

    If this is your plan, I hope you didn’t buy HP…

  4. For anyone wondering FPGA=”Field-programmable gate array”.  It is essentially a chip that can be reprogrammed.

  5. This reminds me of one of Malthus’ lesser known predictions:
    “One day we will have heirloom corn-syrup”

  6. I’m not seeing it. Sure, Z80 CPUs are in use even today, so arguably stuff could have a 30 year life.
    Laptops don’t, though. Too many moving parts. A modularly-designed tablet or smartphone could work.

    You know what devices have been missing since serial ports died? Decent I/O so you can interface a switch or a relay or logic or whatever you wanted. Sure, you can buy I/O project board addons, but it’s not the same.

    [Unrelatedly, I loathe this editbox font’s zigzaggy, little-zeroed numbers: 1234567890. 0 looks identical to o, and terms like “Z80” just look wrong. At least it looks better once submitted.]

    1. I think the thing to keep in mind is that tablets and solid-state/no-moving-parts devices are already approaching laptops in terms of computing power, and it won’t be long before the only appreciable difference is the form factor (as indeed at some point it becomes ridiculous to add more and more power).

      Keyboards and other things that break or fail in cheap laptops already have solutions… keyboards that don’t break are a solved problem (compare a Macbook Pro keyboard that’s been used for a couple of years to a Dell/HP/etc. of similar vintage… then compare both to an IBM Model M from a couple decades ago). There isn’t much use for the disc drive anymore, at least for most people.

      So even with today’s technology, there are few moving parts required in a laptop – really, you just need to ensure you don’t cheap out on the keyboard, and the hinge I guess. Other than that, of course I’m assuming an SSD will be used instead of a hard drive, and presumably the cooling fans (if needed in the future) will be replaceable. For that matter, the keyboard, hinge, etc. should all be replaceable as well… just because something is heirloom quality doesn’t mean it will never need maintenance!

  7. I love Bunnie Hung’s insights. Despite the fact that i am basically ignorant as far as hardware and coding goes, i still regularly read his posts at his personal blog. Also bought a Chumby because i love the idea that it’s an open and hackable platform.

  8. The world’s economy demands cyclical consumption and waste of the Earth’s finite resources, especially rare elements that go into electronic components. Manufacturers know the score, Moore’s law will continue in various iterations but there will always be electronics wearing out.

    Unless; we transition to a Resource Based Economy where these materials will be used sparingly when no other element will do. In a RBE the world’s resources are held in common heritage for everybody! Everybody has a fair crack. Everywhere we look the wheels are coming off the world economy – so we can either choose RBE now or go to war over clean water.

  9. Considering most consumer level products aren’t designed to be repairable today, I don’t see why they expect electronics to all of a sudden become that way.

    Sure I can replace a part in my washing machine, but if I didn’t have the desire and know how it’d cost me probably half or more of what a new one would.  Same goes with computers.  50 years ago you repaired things because that was the norm.  Now the norm is to toss and buy again.

    Besides do you think the electronics industry is going to get on board with all this?  Since when has Intel designed a socket that could accept more than one generation of chip (with a chipset that could actually handle it)?  Or a chipset that could handle more than a couple years worth of processors…  Just because it’s good enough doesn’t mean the vendor isn’t still going to lock you out of an upgrade.

  10. There will be a rise in repair culture as technology becomes less disposable and more permanent. Replacing worn out computer parts five years from their purchase date won’t seem so silly when the replacement part has virtually the same specifications and price as the old part. This rise in repair culture will create a demand for schematics and spare parts that in turn facilitates the growth of open ecosystems and small businesses.

    I know, right? Like all those TV repair shops that are doing brisk business fixing all those tube-based televisions.

    I just can’t buy his thesis. We know that there have been many paradigm shifts. We know the exponential eventually flops over to become an S-curve, and is then supplanted by a new exponential. So I just don’t get his argument.

  11. This seems far-fetched to me.  I like the ideas, but I doubt them seriously. 

    1. Manufactories of laptop parts retool constantly and I am not sure how interested they will be in continuing to produce the same parts if the markets for them are so tiny.  There is a reason that production cycles have shrunk from years to months: it’s called mass-consumerism.  That’s how they make any money in the business.

    2. They also need to make room in their production facilities for the new stuff, and it would be a matter of space.  I would expect prices for legacy parts for laptops to rise precipitously, which would defeat the purpose of passing down a laptop for 30 years.  Parts for them would get so expensive, you’d be stupid to try to repair something that it’s cheaper to just replace.

    3. Laptops aren’t made that well.  Many intricate, delicate plastic parts.  Have you seen what 10 years does to cheap plastic that is exposed to constant temperature flux?  It gets brittle and discolored.  If laptops were made better, with other materials and fewer intricacies, they might last longer.  Such as simple molded cases that could be broken down with latches instead of dozens of tiny screws, then it might have a longer physical life.

    4. Nearly all apps have continued to be bloatware.  Every OS, every new version of an app is more load-heavy, in terms of HD footprint and processing.  We have not yet come anywhere close to a generalizable feature-set that could be portable from app-to-app, with only a few extras from year to year.  Typically, the extras far outweigh the core.  Linux is probably the closest thing to keepin’ it real, but even then, if you are into RedHat, you’d know that the security features get bigger and heavier with each new rev of the OS.

    5. If a company could make money by selling the “Leap Pad” version of software most people use: Office, email, browsing, and keep it from changing too much from year to year, they could in essence, freeze-frame a platform at 2011 Intel i5 and always size software to match it.  But when Zuckerberg invents LifeBook that chronicles every twitch of your muscles from birth to death, that little processor will not be able to keep up.  You’d have to NOT WANT that app, and therefore NOT WANT the hardware to run it.  Currently our capitalist system does not support systems very well that are built on LACK OF DESIRE FOR WHIZ-BANG as their premise.

    Nice ideas.  If they make ’em fly, I’ll invest.  But I really doubt it.

  12. I am reminded of the William Gibson novel ‘Idoru’, (at least I think. I’ve been an avid fan and read just about every book, but the different segments of his future history kinda meld together in my mind.) wherein the young protagonist has what seems to be an expensive kinda laptop from a company/commune/consumer-product-supply/artist-colony called Sandbenders. It’s described as being elegant, powerful and hardy. Hopefully by the next generation we will have begun to make lasting things, items that we would be proud to hand to our children. Things that we would be happy to give to our children knowing that it would last thirty or more years.
    I know this is a major problem I have, is this disposable consumerism that you and I are taken in by.

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