Serviceable parts inside

Electronics manufacturers sometimes quietly use open source code to save on development costs – for example, the the celebrated Linux-powered Linksys WRT54G / WRT54GL wireless broadband routers. Despite the fact Cisco has adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding its famed hackability and extensibility, there continues to be a wide variety of customized WRT54G firmware available with amazing new features. This was the main reason why I bought one for myself; I currently run HyperWRT-Thibor.

But now, for some companies, community software development is embraced and even promoted, rather than being purely incidental.

Slim Devices’ elegant digital music streaming products such as the Squeezebox proudly list their open source powered server software (called SlimServer) as a selling point.

Neuros Technology has taken the concept further by offering prize money to coders who can hack and enhance the Linux firmware powering the Neuros OSD, their Windows Media Centre/Apple iTV competitor. The top bounty of US$1000 goes to the lucky hacker who can stream Youtube onto the diminutive device.

Then there is the Chumby, a WiFi-powered clock-radio gizmo that encourages its owners to tinker with both its software and hardware; even the electronics guts inside are removable. So far people have stuck the Chumby into stuffed animals and footballs, and rigged it to stream photos from the Internet and play MP3s. It’s $150 and in a closed beta program and It’s already more personable and feature-packed than Sony’s and Apple’s best efforts.

Will free software code and hardware extensibility be a competitive advantage these companies win over the masses? Only time will tell.

UPDATE: Om Malik reported on this earlier this year; he called them iCompanies. Choice quote: “It’s the open-source software concept applied to product marketing.”

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