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A changing tech paradigm

14 January 2022

It used to be that manufacturers guarded their secrets closely.

In fact, having a good "trade secret" was often worth far more than having a patent when it came to protecting your profits. One only has to look at the fortunes of companies such as Coca Cola and KFC to see how well that works.

The problem with patents is that you effectively advertise your solution to anyone that wants to read that patent. So, while the patent may give you a license to sue anyone that simply copies your idea, it does not prevent that copying, nor does it prevent people from gaining valuable insight into how better solve a problem through your innovation.

This idea of guarding your secrets has also played a strong part in the growth of tech industries. Very few companies, for instance, publish the source code to their commercial software offerings and the firmware in "smart" devices is often hidden from view.

In recent years however, that model has started to become somewhat eroded and the change is benefiting everyone.

I will take the area of radio control systems for RC models and drones as an example, simply because this is where I have most knowledge and experience.

Once upon a time, radio control (RC) systems were pretty simple affairs.

A bunch of transistors were used to control the width of a stream of pulses using decidedly analog strategies. There were no microcontrollers, no memory, no firmware to be seen.

As was the case with so many simple electronic devices "back in the day", manufacturers were happy to provide circuit diagrams for these things because it only took a few minutes work to reverse-engineer them anyway so there was little point in pretending that this information could even be protected.

Then the digital era came along and although the circuitry remained fairly simple (in fact the component counts dropped due to ICs and LSI), all the new systems relied heavily on firmware to do the heavy lifting. Developing the hardware was relatively cheap and easy when compared to the costs and difficulty of creating 100 percent reliable and easy to use firmware.

Schematics for the hardware was still reasonably available for many systems but there was no way you could get your hands on the "secret sauce" that was the firmware. If there was a bug or some other problem with that firmware, users were entirely reliant on the manufacturer to rectify the problem and most of the time they didn't even try.

About this time I suggested to one of the world's leading RC manufacturers that they abandon the proprietary firmware route and instead embrace the concept of open source software (OSS). "Stick to making good hardware, let others worry about the software" was my advice to them.

Fortunately, they listened -- at least with half an ear. They started making RC systems loaded with an OSS called OpenTX which was supported, enhanced and maintained by an avid community of software and RC enthusiasts.

Jump forward a few years and now almost every RC manufacturer is using OpenTX as the firmware for their systems. They no longer have to invest huge sums in costly custom software development and this has meant a significant fall in the price of RC systems. Prices have fallen from $600 just a decade or so ago to less than $100 today.

What's more, the fact that so many different brands and models all use exactly the same software makes it much easier when users decide to upgrade to a newer system. There's no learning curve.

Now you will recall that a few paragraphs ago I said that "half an ear" was used to listen to my suggestion. Let me explain further...

An RC system consists of two parts: the digital part and the radio-frequency part.

The digital side has switched almost entirely over to the OSS OpenTX softwware but manufacturers opted to keep the RF side (think of it as the transport layer) proprietary.

Each RC manufacturer was known for its own proprietary protocol and acryonums such as ACCST, DSX, AFHSS, FASST were bandied about freely. There was no inter-operability between protocols because manufacturers were still keen to lock customers into their own equipment.

Well I'm pleased to say that now, even that "trade secret" has fallen.

The face of the RC marketplace is undergoing a huge change right now, due to an OSS transport layer called ELRS (Express Long Range System).

Keen enthusiasts have designed and implemented a system that outperforms all the "trade secret" manufacturer's systems as an OSS and open-hardware solution.

Suddenly, those "trade secret" RF protocols are a hindrance rather than an asset.

Customers do not want to pay more money for less performance. They want the cheaper and better option provided by this open source alternative.

The savvy manufacturers have leapt on the ELRS bandwagon and are now able to manufacture both hardware and software with very little investment of development resources.

The result is rapidly falling prices for RC equipment, yet again.

It is astonishing to think that whereas, a few years back, a decent RC receiver could cost $50 or more and offer a range of perhaps 1.5Km, today's ELRS-based receivers cost just $10 and have ranges measured in tens of Km whilst also weighing in at just a couple of grams.

I would love to see this open model spread to other tech devices.

Imagine an open-source vehicle control system that manufacturers could simply flash onto their latest EV and thus dispense with all the costs and overheads of developing their own. There would surely be huge numbers of eager contributors to such a project and the benefits would be much as they were to the hobby of RC: consistent experience across brands/models, lower prices, better support.

In an era when "right to repair" is becoming an important issue and should factor in purchasing decisions, getting rid of the "secret sauce" and replacing it with community owned open source systems seems like a win for everyone.

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