We can all agree that open source revolutionized the software industry.

The effect has been profound on every segment from enterprise software to search and social networking. But it wasn’t always that way.  The late Jim Ready, founding father of embedded open source software, told me once that his early prospects told him that open source wouldn’t fly because they wouldn’t trust their code to a bunch of teenagers in some far-off part of the world.

Well, guess what? Embedded open source software not only works; most our world runs on it today.

That said, the real story is open innovation, of which open source licenses are simply one part. Open innovation means looking outside traditional corporate silos to harness the collective knowledge of a global community of developers and using that community to create new and transformative things. Open innovation in software is enabled by many things: GitHub, app stores and crowdsourcing platforms like Topcoder (founded by our investor and director Jack Hughes) being just a few. Once enabled, though, the innovation potential of this crowd is mind boggling.

In many ways, hardware is now adopting the principles of open innovation. Maker Fairs are remarkable and visible manifestations of human creativity with participants of all ages and backgrounds. Hackathons are commonplace and innovative platforms such as Hackster.io are doing great things. That said, hardware is in the infancy of embracing the power of community to commercialize product. And semiconductors are still in the dark ages in this regard, with only the first rays of light shining on an alternative path forward.

Let’s view this open innovation dilemma and opportunity from the top down.

Today’s IoT devices require a collection of technologies assembled in a cost-efficient “package.” The system-level innovator is more likely focused on data or a use case and is unlikely to have everything at her or his disposal to get the hardware system that enables the solution to market. Technical resources are hard to find and the cost of creating customized solutions for customized applications are prohibitive. The problem is more profound when those system-level innovators and their suppliers become smaller, underfunded entities armed only with a dream.

The solution lies in a connected community of like-minded innovators with complementary skill sets collaborating in a frictionless manner. The community will access cloud-based platforms that reduce the cost to build a prototype. The business process could be highly directed, like a crowdsourced development flow where companies or individuals contribute in various stages of a highly structured project. Or, it may be non-deterministic, as in the case of an IC reference design that community members can clone and fork in new and creative ways, again and again. These reference designs might combine open source and proprietary IP with each contributor retaining economics and intellectual property rights.

An interesting early example of this trend to IC open innovation is the open source RISC-V initiative, garnering remarkable support from established companies like Nvidia and Western Digital. Recently, an open source reference design with a RISC-V core was created on an open source foundry-targeted design flow.  It will be published to be cloned and adapted by community members and be part of a complete ready-to-run set of design files along with example verification test benches and firmware code.

By the way, the same openness is possible around proprietary architectures such as Arm. License agreements on M0 and M3 cores are available at no upfront cost with attractive royalty rates. The Arm mbed offering simplifies and democratizes the software creation process.

This is just the start. We imagine the potential of an online marketplace with a complete design platform open to a global community of experienced designers with remarkable ingenuity and capabilities. The online innovation platform will offer the designer community access to everything required to take IP and ICs from idea to manufacturing. It will be easy for community members and customers to:

  • Formulate, communicate and agree on design requirements.
  • Quantitatively evaluate the successful completion of design specifications and
  • Access foundry mulit-project wafers (MPWs) to deliver prototypes.
  • The framework will allow community to share and modify chips. The marketplace will include customizable reference chip designs and community, third-party and foundry IP. Designers can access the community for analog, digital and mixed-signal IP on demand.

The timing is right for the semiconductor industry to embark on this journey and accelerate the proliferation of community-created IoT solutions. Welcome to the world of open innovation.

source: Article by Mike Wishart, EE Times, March 2018

Time for ‘Open Innovation’, not just Open Source