Is MakerBot Abandoning Open Hardware?

replicator_feat

One of the biggest stories in open source hardware and software circles right now is talk that MakerBot, one of the driving forces behind the fledgling industry of consumer 3D printers, is likely to be keeping their new “Replicator 2″ under a more restrictive license.

MakerBot is easily the most successful open hardware company, and has been a shining example of what the maker community is possible. To have them go the way of proprietary software and closed hardware development could be a crushing blow to the community.

The TangiBot

While nobody outside of MakerBot is actually sure what’s going on behind closed doors, many are of the opinion that the recent debate over the “TangiBot” Kickstarter campaign, which aimed to put out a nearly clone of the original MakerBot Replicator made using lower cost Chinese components. The cheaper components, even with the improvements made to the design, gave the TangiBot a retail price roughly 30% less than that of the Replicator itself.

The community was severely divided over the TangiBot. Many claimed it was an insult to MakerBot, an attempt to undercut the market leader using lower quality hardware. Those who apposed the TangiBot believed the improvements it made over the original Replicator design were minor at best, and it didn’t bring anything new to the table. Many were quick to label the TangiBot as a “knockoff”.

But those who supported the TangiBot realized that the licenses which MakerBot used to develop and release the Replicator completely allowed for this. In fact, the staunch supporters of open hardware said that products like the TangiBot were positive and perhaps even integral to the open hardware community; after all, if the MakerBot was the only game in town, what would keep the design from stagnating? Competition is what drives innovation, without it, the consumer is the only one to suffer. If the TangiBot could deliver the same performance of the Replicator at 2/3rd the cost, then it was time for MakerBot to innovate: either bring their cost down or improve their design.

Whether it was the considerable debate over the ideals and goals of TangiBot creator Matt Strong, or simply the community’s unwillingness to possibly put MakerBot in danger by helping a competitor get put into production, the end result is that the Kickstarter failed miserably: generating  only $55,000 of the $500,000 requested.

With the TangiBot out of the running, the community believed that MakerBot would continue business as usual. But if the popular theory proves true, it may be that some people inside the company got spooked about the possibility of another company or group trying again in the future, especially with the release of their vastly improved Replicator 2.

Rumors and Questions

When MakerBot recently unveiled the Replicator 2, one thing was ominously missing: information about what license the hardware was released under. Despite multiple attempts from exiting Replicator owners and community leaders, MakerBot refused to answer a very simple question, is the Replicator 2 open or not?

Bre Pettis

The lack or official response naturally got the rumor mill moving, and in an attempt to stabilize the situation, MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis released a statement via the company’s blog. Unfortunately, the statement did little to answer the community’s questions:

Is the MakerBot Replicator 2 Open Source?

We’re working that out and we are going to be as open as we possibly can while building a sustainable business. We are going to continue to respect licenses and continue to contribute to the open technology of 3D printing, some of which we initiated. We don’t want to abuse the goodwill and support of our community. We love what we do, we love sharing, and we love what our community creates. I believe strongly that businesses that share will be the winners of tomorrow and I don’t think that’s a secret. Even companies like Google and IBM are embracing open source and finding new ways to share these days.

Bre Pettis

This statement doesn’t answer the question at all, though it certainly doesn’t sound good. The fact that Bre can’t answer a simple yes or no question leads many to believe that MakerBot is either unsure how to handle the Replicator 2’s licensing, or that they have already decided to keep it closed, and are simply stalling for time.

Whatever the reasoning, the very idea that MakerBot could begin sales of the Replicator 2 without making it clear what license the $2,000+ USD device consumers will be purchasing is released under is seen as completely unacceptable to many in the community.

Community Leaders Weigh In

Perhaps the most interesting part of this story so far are the comments from original MakerBot founder Zachary Smith, who was forced out of the company earlier this year.

I do not support any move that restricts the open nature of the MakerBot hardware, electronics, software, firmware, or other open projects. MakerBot was built on a foundation of open hardware projects such as RepRap and Arduino, as well as using many open software projects for development of our own software. I remain a staunch supporter of the open source movement, and I believe the ideals and goals of OSHW remain true.  I have never wavered from this stance, and I hope that I never do.  Future me, beware.

For me, personally, I look at a move to closed source as the ultimate betrayal. When I was forced out, it was a normal, if unfortunate, clash of wills where one person must stay and one person must go. I swallowed my ego and left, because I knew that the company I founded would carry my ideals further into the world. Regardless of our differences, I had assumed that Bre would continue to follow the principles that we founded the company on, and the same principles that played a major part in the success of our company. Moving from an open model to a closed model is contrary to everything that I stand for, and as a co-founder of MakerBot Industries, it makes me ashamed to have my name associated with it.

Bre Pettis, please prove me wrong by clarifying exactly what license MakerBot will be releasing the design files and software under.  That is all we (the community) wants.

Zachary Smith

The request is, as Zachary says, very simple.

Zachary goes on about how MakerBot changed internally since he started it, and refers to Bre’s earlier blog post as “a load of corporate double-speak bullshit that has come to characterize my interactions with MakerBot in recent memory”. Hardly a vote of confidence.

Similar comments were also made by Josef Prusa, creator of one of the most popular 3D hobbyist printers, the Prusa Mendel:

Just recently they did one Open Hardware achievement, with Tangibot, clone of Replicator on Kickstarter (google it if you want to know more) where community totally crashed the clone and prove that they do not need any closed source bullshit to succeed.
But surprise, surprise, we now have a Replicator 2 and it is closed source. Hey look, we took all your improvements you shared on thingiverse, compiled it into one package and closed it for you :-D . Same with MakerWare. (They finally, after several years, stopped using Skeinforge, software done by Brazilian who doesn’t even have a printer :-D )

And you know what is the biggest, sneaky move? Not mentioning it while they announced it. My guess is, that they will mention it when first pre-orders ship out. Which is after OPEN HARDWARE Summit where Bre gives a talk (I wonder about what, lol) and Makerfaire and all magazines writes about them as Open Hardware heroes :-D . That is the sickest move.

Josef Prusa

Waiting Game

While things certainly don’t look good, we still aren’t sure what MakerBot plans on doing with the Replicator 2. But it looks like we might have an answer in the very near future, as Bre is giving the ominously titled talk “Challenges of Open Source Consumer Products” at next week’s Open Hardware Summit.


Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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  • Charlie Whitman

    If MakerBot does go to a closed license, it could very well have the opposite effect that they would desire. Their previous success was built on the open hardware principles that they put forward. If they make the new model closed, then that could end up making it so the next Kickstarter campaign based on the idea of cloning and improving their previous model succeeds with a vengeance. It could end up increasing competition from outside sources.

    • http://www.digifail.com/ Tom Nardi

      I think that’s very likely. If MakerBot really does turn their back on the community that supported them, I fully expect a “forked” Replicator that is based on the original design.

      I would certainly support such an effort.

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