Category Archives: editorial

Bre Pettis Of Makerbot Tries Again (Emphasis On Try)

If anyone was suffering under the illusion that Makerbot had suddenly become an evil company that was plotting evil and evily being evil, then Pettis’ new post should put those fears to rest.

Pettis, on behalf of Makerbot, tried to rephrase his original message to the community.

For what it’s worth (I’ve never run a million dollar business), I agree with Makerbot’s business decision(s). The hacker community just isn’t big enough, by itself, to allow Makerbot to grow. Also for what it’s worth (I won’t pretend to speak for anyone else), I agree with Makerbot’s ethical decision(s). Open source means releasing your work for other people to do with as they will. There are no takesies-backsies. If you were a big enough person to use an open souce license (or no license) in the first place then don’t suddenly become a small person when somebody actually does something with the work you released.

What I have a problem with is the thing that illustrates that Makerbot actually IS fumbling their way through uncharted terrain: even with all of his experience as a teacher, and a geek-media personality, and the face of Makerbot, and with a couple days of feedback…Pettis still can’t figure out how to talk about the Replicator 2 being closed source.

  • He can’t decide if the Replicator 2 is “groundbreaking” because it’s brand new or if it’s exactly the same as the open source Replicator with a few minor alterations for mass production
  • He regularly conflates ethical decisions with financial ones
  • He implies that the customers who bought Cupcakes and whatnot when the Makerbot founders were eating Ramen don’t respect the machines because they’d rather “break” them than use them to make other things
  • He plays lip service to valuing the discussion, but only quotes people who agree with him
  • He has been intimately involved in open source hardware, and business, for as long as anyone relevant but he can’t come up with any specific “wonderful benefits” of corporate/community collaboration
  • Finally, he expresses a desire to be credited with “love and support for the sharers of the world” but also wants credit for making the Replicator 2 (and the implication is all subsequent printers) “more user friendly but less hacker friendly”

This shouldn’t be interpreted as a condemnation. I think these contradictions illustrate that Makerbot really is unsure of its position, both economically and philosophically. There are some real issues here. But, Pettis’ failure to deal with them clearly comes of as Machiavellian. I still put enough trust in Makerbot and Pettis to assume that they aren’t being Machiavellian, but apparently they jumped over that shark in the eyes of a significant percentage of the community.

I don’t think it was really the closed product that did it; I think it was the bush-league way Makerbot handled (and is still handling) the community’s concerns. There’s no way they would have done this much damage to their reputation on purpose; the only plausible explanation is that they are legitimately confused.

I think this quote sums it up, “If we are not entirely clear, it’s because we are searching ourselves!

However, Pettis should probably find someone else to write his Open Hardware Summit speech.

An interesting bit of history is this interview with Make Magazine right after that infamous $10M of VC funding. For what it’s worth, here is what Pettis had to say at the time:

  • Does funding change the commitment to open source hardware?
  • The funding doesn’t change our commitment to being open source. Why would we change a winning strategy?…In the future, people will remember businesses that refused to share with their customers and wonder how they could be so backwards…I think people worry on our behalf that as an open hardware company, we’ll get knocked off and undercut. First of all, that happens all the time to businesses that are not open hardware. In order to be truly competitive, we’ve got to keep rocking it!
  • What do the investors believe they are investing in? Since open source hardware “gives away” some of the IP usually associated with investments, do they understand that others could make MakerBots too?
  • The investors are investing in us as innovators and our ability to execute on a vision. Being open source means that our users are our best collaborators. Open source hardware is a viable business model!
  • The usual goal for VC firms is to have the company they invest in get acquired or go public. Where do they want to see MakerBot go? Where do you want MakerBot to go?
  • Our plan is to make the world a more innovative place filled with MakerBots.
  • Now that you’ve got “real money” at play, are you worried about people coming after you over patents? Is MakerBot mostly patent-free? Or are we going to see a good chunk of that 10 mil go towards lawyers? Before, you likely weren’t worth the trouble, but now?
  • It’s going to be hard to figure out how to be an open hardware company that lives in the open source future while protecting ourselves from the proprietary ways of the contemporary patent system.
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On Makerbot And Being Open (Or Not)

A lot of smart people have wasted a lot of time wondering what open means. At least…in my opinion a lot of the discussion is wasted…because I don’t think it’s all that complicated.

It’s a simple matter of priorities. You are open if your top priority is being open. If your top priority is anything else, then you’re not open. You might be a big fan of open, you might even make it a high priority, but if it’s not your top priority then you are open in name only. You’re openwashing.

For example, a year ago the three founders of Makerbot all signed a statement that opened with this:

We make it open source so that you will have all the information about the machine. Our goal is be as open about the machine as possible! If you want to improve or hack the machine, you can do so…

Today, Bre Pettis was the lone voice who’s statement opened with this:

…we are going to be as open as we possibly can while building a sustainable business.

The old team perspective was:

The possibilities that we can’t imagine yet are one of the wonderful things that makes us stay up all night hacking on code, working on prototypes, and dealing with supply chain issues.

We’re not big fans of anything proprietary

We’ve been in the “eating ramen” stage of building a business this year because we want to get as many of these out there and grow the community…

We are doing this because we are dedicating our lives and our savings and our minds to the dream of bringing the tools of manufacturing to all.

The new Makerbot perspective is:

I’m looking forward to having conversations with folks at the Open Hardware Summit to talk about how MakerBot can share as much as possible, support it’s 150 employees with jobs, make awesome hardware, and be sustainable.

From a business perspective, we’ve been absurdly open, more open than any other business I know.

I don’t plan on letting the vulnerabilities of being open hardware destroy what we’ve created.

This isn’t the first change we’ve made to become more of a professional business, and it won’t be our last.

That’s absolutely a shift in top priorities and, to be fair, it makes perfect sense. Back before their $10M round of funding nobody knew if Makerbot would even be around in a year. But they are, and they’re doing more and better, and that’s all thanks to the money that was invested with them. Investment isn’t charity. Makerbot didn’t grow because the community gave them money in exchange for printers; Makerbot grew because they kept managing to convince professionals that they would be able to produce a significant return on seed capital.

It doesn’t really matter what their original priorities were, because the only way for them to be successful now is to focus on maximizing profit. You have to play the ball where it lies.

Yes, it is possible that they could be successful while remaining devoted to open, but it would be a hell of a gamble. There aren’t any relevant case-studies that I’m aware of; Makerbot is the first. New businesses, and new business models, are notoriously likely to fail. When you’re just a little guy plugging away at an idea, failure isn’t a big deal. When you’re using $10M of someone else’s money, failure becomes a real issue.

The thing is that I don’t see how anyone loses. Even if Makerbot goes totally closed source, and cuts off all the old printers, the community still benefits. Whether we like it or not the community suffers as long as 3D printing remains an unknown niche for a specific subset of geeks. There isn’t anything about the current state-of-the-art in open 3D printing that is inherently expensive or complicated. What is keeping it in a place where it costs too much and breaks too often is the lack of a market. Grow the market so that scale will bring prices down and quality up. That will help the open hobby community do more and more exciting things because there will be a bigger supply of commodities to work with.

And I don’t think Makerbot will go totally closed source. I think what they’re doing is moving up-market as fast as possible so that they can establish themselves as a brand that non-hackers buy. Believe it or not, but even most geeks get tired of wrenching on their projects and would appreciate it if they’d just freaking work for long enough to get something else done. There are an order of magnitude more people ready to buy a turn-key 3D printer than a turn-allen-wrench 3D printer. Those people are not being served by existing 3D printing companies. It would be fiscally foolish of Makerbot to ignore that market in favor of the tiny hacker market. But that doesn’t mean they will abandon open source designs. I think they will keep doing open source work, it will just slip into second or third place.

They need to pay their investors back, which means they need to establish a brand and cash flow that is lucrative. The open source hobby community is not lucrative. Of course it would be nice if they would be more up front about their shift in priorities, but I suppose using corporate double-speak is part of that shift.

Give it time. The open hardware movement is still very young and, unlike software, there is no way to ignore money. You can’t pay for hardware by eating cheap food and staying in front of your computer; you have to actually turn a profit. Even if Makerbot closes up like a clam, they will still have proven that a successful company can start open. Then the next hardware guys will try to stay open longer.

Also…if Makerbot goes closed source, they will just get out-innovated by the remaining open source hardware community anyway…just like the companies they’re trying to beat to the prosumer 3D printing market. The only way for them to stay relevant is to stay at least somewhat open.

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Legoification of Open Hardware on Genomicon

Over at Genomicon there’s a good post examining why it is vitally necessary for open hardware to “Lego-ify” if it wants to get any kind of wide acceptance.

Home computers started to really take off after the text-only interface of DOS was replaced with the graphical interface of Windows. Individual contributions to the web started to really take off after raw html code was replaced with higher level languages and tools. Tinkering with electronics is a lot more attractive when it doesn’t require soldering.

At the moment, possibly one of the largest barriers to entry for open hardware are CAD/CAM tools. Just like microcode, they have to be complicated because there are so many variables that have to be accounted for. However, they can slip into the background behind more user-friendly interfaces. But, any time you reduce complexity you have to decide which variables the user is allowed to manipulate.

Lego keeps coming up as a metaphor because it’s perfect. Lego handles all the nitty-gritty details of tolerances and compatibility, then simplifies the nearly unlimited design space into neat little packages. That kind of thing has to happen, and has to happen well, before a technology can achieve any kind of scale. The expert hobbyists can always figure out what’s going on, but the people who just want the technology to do something for them aren’t going to put up with much troubleshooting. Best Buy currently makes a lot of money hooking up audio/video gear, which is nothing more than plugging cables into boxes, because even that high-level packaging is too much for some people.

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