Open vs. Closed Hardware
By Carlo Longino, Mon Jan 10 20:30:00 GMT 2005

Following Howard Rheingold's recent manifesto for the future of the mobile Internet, TheFeature reader Robert Horvitz points out an article in The Economist highlighting a struggle between open and closed Wi-Fi products.

Robert says: "The January 6 issue of The Economist wades into an emerging conflict between open and closed technologies:

'Cheap and powerful devices that use unlicensed and lightly regulated parts of the radio spectrum are proliferating. But there is a problem. Though the spectrum is open, the microprocessor chips that drive the devices which use it are not. The interface information -- the technical data needed to write software that would allow those chips to be used in novel ways -- is normally kept secret by manufacturers. The result could be a lot less innovation in the open wireless world than in the open wired one.'

The author of The Economist's article goes on to cite efforts by community wireless groups to modify purchased hardware to support mesh networking. The manufacturers of the equipment allegedly refused to provide the information needed to do this, saying the release of such information would be illegal since it would let people change the way a chip that uses unlicensed spectrum works, an interpretation that goes by a pretty tight reading of the law:

"Engineers are not asking for the computer code that drives the interfaces, merely for the means to talk to them. And having the interface information in the public domain should eventually result in more chips being sold. So it is hard to see what the problem is beyond a dog-in-the-mangerish desire not to give anything away. Time to open it up, boys.'

For more on this topic, see "Hidden Interfaces to 'Ownerless' Networks" (PDF) by Christian Sandvig, David Young and Sascha Meinrath, a paper presented at the 2004 Telecommunications Policy Research Conference in Arlington, Virginia, last September."