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.