To be open or not to be?

I briefly covered a very small fraction of what went on at Maker Faire 2012 just recently, but I failed to mention a strong current in the atmosphere — open source. What’s going to happen to open source? Are we to assume that other open source pioneers will take similar roads as MakerBot? Their current printer, the Replicator 2 that plays on the success of the open source RepRap project, is not open source. Clearly there are benefits to open source, but as it’s not predominant in our markets, there must be some drawbacks.

I’m an advocate of open source and it’s something that feels good to talk about for me, but there are limits to all good things. As a journalistic attempt to provide unbiased but thought provoking and relevant content, I’ll go back and forth with how totally genius and how utterly lame open source is. To begin: openness expands the potential of an idea or design; the more people that can tinker with something, the higher the chances that brilliant people will get their hands on it and make it better or find some new use for it. But those people aren’t necessarily being paid to tinker; some of those brilliant minds have to fit their creativity between paperwork filled nine to fives. It’s not possible to pay everyone that contributes to an open source project; there are simply too many contributors and not everyone’s contribution will be worth paying for. With a project that isn’t freely accessible for all to have a say, people can be chosen according to skill and talent and be compensated for their time dedicated to the project. All the voices of an open sourced task can drown out the best ideas and overshadow the most pragmatic path. This is why open source communities are formed: to organize communication for the purpose of laying out problems, discussing and developing solutions, and tracking progress. These communities are often built around online message boards where users post and respond to threads broken up by topics; boards for 3D printing could include forums for replication, print materials, and help sections for software and hardware. Ideas are filtered through these boards as there are usually active users that are knowledgeable enough to shoot down or test recommendations of other users. The accumulation of all the little successful ideas can culminate to great ideas like the RepRap, who’s not-so-distant relative is the MakerBot Replicator 2.

The Replicator 2 is the best of its kind, but it’s not open source. All the shared brilliance of all the open source garage hobbyists that somehow spawned the RepRap coalesced into a beautiful printer that’s affordable, easy to use, and locked down. The community that (indirectly) helped create the printer has no access to its design. Has MakerBot betrayed its humble beginnings? Are they biting at the greasy hand of creativity that feeds innovation? Probably not.

The quality of MakerBot printers quickly outpaced that of the RepRap community after the Thing-o-matic’s success. When they assembled a qualified team and paid them, that team collaborated amongst themselves for common goals and delivered awesome printers. Now, I’d love for MakerBot to share their designs so that people could build their own printers and make improvements, but the unfortunate fact is, if the designs for the Replicator 2 were freely available, there are people that would simply manufacture the printer and sell it for less. That may sound like a good deal, but it pulls funds from the innovators and diverts it to copiers. MakerBot has enough competition to be competing with itself.

Open source is useful, very. The level of customization and scope of reach accessible in an open source environment is unmatched. But some of the best work comes out of people that have specific tasks, reliable pay, and a consistent team to work with. Open source delivers good ideas, but sometimes those ideas need some initial protection to really thrive. I’m interested to see how you readers feel about all this, so please do comment.