Europe bets on Open-Source Hardware

Open-Source Software is a familiar concept to anyone who uses digital devices. Names like Linux or Android are familiar and, due to their high degree of market penetration, have probably been used at some point by users of digital devices.

But while open-source software has evolved significantly throughout the history of the digital world, open-source hardware projects have lagged significantly behind, something the European Union now wants to change.

What does the European Union intend by promoting Open-Source Hardware?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B. –

Open-source is a type of open code that refers to a model of collaborative co-creation that promotes the development of products, processes, systems and projects, exempt from the restrictions associated with copyright, such as patents and licenses, through the express waiver of the developers. The open-source adopts a type of free license; it seeks that the product circulates without restrictions and can be used universally and evolve as much as possible through the contribution of many other creatives, allowing any interested person to be linked to the initiative.

The open-source and open-source projects materialize the concept of collective and collaborative intelligence in high impact products for the industry and users. The most popular open-source projects are software projects, called Open-Source Software, especially those derived from the Linux language, as is the case with Android.

RISC-V, the unknown Linux of hardware

Although in open-source issues, software is much ahead of hardware, not only in cases of success, but also in the number of projects implemented around the world, it is possible to find some very relevant projects in the history of hardware, which are an important point of reference, even though they did not manage to grow in the same proportion as software did.

A quite familiar name for students and enthusiasts of electronics, robotics and systems is Arduino, a project developed in 2003 by Italian students to make the study of electronics cheaper and easier. This system made the concept of open hardware popular and may be considered a predecessor to current initiatives in the area.

Years later, a project started in 2010 at the University of California at Berkeley, and was called RISC-V, an acronym that means reduced instruction set computer, becoming the most solid open-source project developed so far, consisting of a set of instructions for hardware architectures, i. e. computer processors and their various electronic derivatives.

From its beginnings, RISC-V provided several CPU prototypes available for free under BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) licenses, allowing derivative works, such as RISC-V chip designs, to be open and free.

The European Union project

Recently, the European Commission decided to award the design and elaboration of a report to OpenForum Europe and Fraunhofer ISI [1], which will allow to quantify the impact of open-source software and hardware on cross-cutting issues for the European Union, such as technological independence, competitiveness and innovation. In this regard, Dr. Andrew Katz, an expert who leads the open hardware section of this research, stated “as recently published by El País in Spain”[2] that

“This is the first time that open hardware has been mentioned in a study of this size, which shows that it is reaching maturity and may be crucial for the European economy during the next decade.

The idea is to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges of open-source on issues relevant to technology development in the EU, such as Cyber Security, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Industry Digitization, Connected Car, Supercomputing, Big Data and Blockchain”. Dr. Andrew Katz, Published by Retina El País of Spain [3]

According to the expert Lluís Terés of the Institute of Microelectronics of Barcelona, the European Union is considering resuming the advances achieved so far in processors based on RISC-V technology, seeking to give them sufficient impetus to position them in the market at the next level:

“This would mean very important changes in the market of microprocessor cores and chips, as well as in the systems and integrated circuits based on such cores”, Lluís Terés, CSIC researcher at the IMB-CNM (Institute of Microelectronics of Barcelona – National Center of Microelectronics) [4].

A Geopolitical Issue

The decision of the European Union to start working intensively on open-source projects, also on software, but especially on hardware, is a clever strategy to gain independence in the field of IT and to avoid the growing control of countries that keep the production and distribution of hardware concentrated until now. And it is not only the United States, China and Russia, but even the United Kingdom, which is no longer part of the European Union because of Brexit [5], and where ARM[6], one of the main producers of computer processors in the world, is located. It is important to remember that the United Kingdom and ARM analyzed the possibility of joining the American veto against Huawei sometime in 2019[7].

For the European Union, promoting developments that do not depend on an industrial patent or on a specific manufacturer guarantees not only the democratization of the industry, but also independence from other countries or specific agents in the market, which keeps its sovereignty protected, promoting the plural growth of the whole sector.

A very important step taken by the European Union in this area occurred in December 2018 when the EPI (European Processor Initiative [8]) project was launched, promoted by the same European Commission and brought together 27 partners from ten countries to create a large European processor for supercomputers using RISC-V technology.

All these initiatives will result in unprecedented growth in the open source hardware industry; according to a projection made by the research firm Tractica “the global revenue generated by RISC-V would increase from $52 million in 2018 to $1.1 billion in 2025” [9].

In conclusion, thanks to the development of RISC-V carried out by the University of California at Berkeley in 2010 and the current initiatives promoted by the European Union, it is very certain that we will witness a growth of open source hardware in this decade, equal or superior to that seen with open-source software in the past decade, which could guarantee a greater democratization of the industry, generate a lesser concentration of production in a few countries and allow a significant reduction of values by not having to include the license or patent feed in the costs of sale.

[1] Reference article about this initiative

[2] Article in RETINA El País of Spain

[3] Article by El País of Spain

[4] Article by El País of Spain

[5] New York Times Article: What is Brexit?

[6] Wikipedia article on ARM

[7] El Pais Article on the Possible Veto of ARM to Huawei.

[8] EPI website

[9] Study conducted by Tractica

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