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Degrees of Openness
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Hardware Openness

Openness greatly affects computer hardware. The personal computer industry, specifically the Intel/AMD segment, has benefited enormously from various hardware standards. Examples include the PCI bus, IDE and SCSI interfaces, USB and FireWire, and AGP. Though most of these technologies require royalty payment to their creators, they are nonetheless open, because their specifications are publicly available; they must conform to certain physical and performance parameters. It is no accident that Apple Computer, a manufacturer of proprietary hardware, has less than a 10 percent share of the personal computer market at the time of this writing, while the rest of the consumer market belongs to numerous vendors building systems conforming to the PC standard. Open hardware standards in the PC segment of the industry have allowed many manufacturers to participate in the market and consumers have benefited from increased choice and availability of components.

The PC industry still suffers from manufacturers using proprietary features to the detriment of customers. This occurs in several areas:

  • Form factor
  • Interfaces
  • Ease of upgrade
  • Serviceability

Computer makers sometimes use hardware components not conforming to standard form factors. This requires users to purchase such components only from the manufacturer, usually at a much higher price than equivalent, standards-compliant versions.

proprietary floppy drive

Photo 1 shows a floppy drive from a personal computer, made by one of the large manufacturers. Notice the elliptical eject button. This button will only fit into a case made by the manufacturer. Thus, the drive can only be replaced with one purchased from the manufacturer. Although this is a simple example, it illustrates the concept of proprietary form factor. Personal computer power supplies are perhaps the component most often subject to this treatment.

Some computer manufacturers produce hardware that mostly, but doesn't completely, adhere to standards. Apple uses many industry standard hardware components in its Macs, but to retain control of its product, Apple uses its own style of firmware to boot and control the computers. Likewise, Mac OS X incorporates many key components from open source projects, yet is a proprietary product. This affects consumers.

Consider the AGP video cards used in many Apple computers. If you want to upgrade the AGP video card in your Mac, you must buy a special one created for the Mac. The purchase price of an AGP card made to the Apple AGP specification is much higher than one made for industry-standard personal computers, even though the cards may have identical specifications and may come from the same manufacturer. The reason for this is Mac systems require video cards with a special PROM. This is a classic form of proprietary implementation; it effectively protects the manufacturer from competition and insures higher profit margins.

Another common limitation on a system's degree of openness is the ability to upgrade components. Some personal computers come with video controllers built into the system motherboard. Usually there is a motherboard jumper or BIOS parameter which bypasses the built-in video controller and enables the user to install a new video card into the system. Sometimes these computers lack the jumper or BIOS setting, leaving the user stuck with the built-in video controller. The only way to upgrade the video controller is to purchase a new computer.

Serviceability is an often overlooked area of openness. Perhaps the best example of this is the CMOS battery in laptop computers: most computers use a small, round battery, similar to those found in wrist watches, to provide a trickle charge to the system BIOS when the computer is turned off. Eventually, these batteries go bad and need replacement. Replacing the CMOS battery on most laptops is a major task, often requiring complete disassembly.

This is a form of openness, in the literal sense of the word, but one worth considering. When you consider how most computer makers void the warranty of systems opened by users, this becomes a cause for concern. You may think that most CMOS batteries go bad way past the warranty period, so this isn't usually a problem. This is true most, but not all of the time. New computers sometimes ship with CMOS batteries that have been sitting in a warehouse several years. Some computer manufacturers make it easy to get at and replace the CMOS battery. IBM ThinkPads are the easiest laptop computers to replace the CMOS battery. Photo 2 shows the location of the CMOS battery on an IBM ThinkPad 600 series laptop.

the CMOS battery for an IBM Thinkpad 600

This particular example is interesting, because it illustrates several aspects of openness applying to one component. First, the battery is very easy to remove; this makes it open from a serviceability standpoint. Second, the battery has a plastic sheath which holds the two lead wires in place; in this regard the component is closed, because few people are capable of or will take the trouble to make their own. Third, the battery itself is an industry standard CR2025, the same battery found in many wrist watches; this aspect of the component is open. The latter is most important--by choosing a standard battery IBM has all but assured a plentiful aftermarket supply of these special batteries. Some other laptops use proprietary CMOS batteries, only available from the manufacturer (and usually very difficult and a lot more expensive to replace).

Serviceability is an issue both for individual users and large organizations. A laptop computer that is difficult to service can mean a wait of several days to a week or more for an individual user. For a large organization with many computers to upgrade and service, it can create a logistical nightmare.

There are multiple ways by which system manufacturers make it difficult to service their products. Most commonly, they create a usage license that restricts upgrade and service to themselves or business partners (the enforcement mechanism being a voiding of the warranty). Another tactic is to make it difficult to get to and remove the component requiring service. For example, Toshiba Satellite laptop computers used a special screw to secure the hatch for the hard drive. The screw was made of soft metal (likely a low grade steel with high zinc content) and had a special head pattern requiring a special tool to loosen it. If you didn't use the special tool, chances were you would strip the screw head. Toshiba charged about $600 to replace a hard drive in those machines. Toshiba ceased this practice a few years ago, probably due to customer feedback and lost sales (though similar behavior still exists today with at least one other computer maker I'm aware of).

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