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The Promise & Pitfalls of Open Hardware Development

The democratization of hardware design may be upon us.

www.eetasia.com, Feb. 17, 2021 – 

The prying open of the hardware stack has begun in earnest, but the precise path this complex process will take has yet to be determined.

Market forces, limits of scaling and the emergence of disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence have fueled the rise of open source hardware. Still, as this EE Times Special Project demonstrates, physical, legal and economic barriers remain as a fledgling group of open source advocates and a handful of commercial vendors seek to democratized hardware design.

Those proponents and early adopters have focused their energies on reduced instruction set computing, the foundational RISC architecture that emerged from the University of California at Berkeley in the 1980s. RISC has seeded the beginnings of an ecosystem extending beyond processor technology to include open interconnects, network and, ultimately, open computing.

As with open source software, key chip makers are eyeing the open hardware movement. Some perhaps with trepidation as semiconductor scaling runs out of steam and monster GPUs and CPUs accelerators approach the end of the line, giving way to new heterogeneous devices and chiplets.

Indeed, the nascent open source hardware movement can glean lessons from their software brethren. Over the last several years, in examples of what critics described as "enlightened self-interest," behemoths such as Microsoft (GitHub) and IBM (Red Hat) have snapped up key sectors of the open source software movement.

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