Some Thoughts on Tangibot, Makerbot, and Community
Written by Akiba   
Saturday, 11 August 2012
Today was kind of strange. I normally am pretty busy doing designs. It's busy enough that I try to ignore as many distractions as possible, try not to leave the house, and mainly just concentrate on what I'm designing, milling, assembling, or whatever else needs to be done. But a Kickstarter project was brought to my attention via Twitter that for some reason, struck enough of an emotional chord in me, that I felt the need to comment on it .

I'm not a stranger to posting comments. Most people that know me also know that I'm opinionated and can sometimes be a bit of a jerk about it. This was a bit different though because not only did it require me to spend the time and thought to write the comment, but I also had to pay $10 to do it. The issue at hand was a Kickstarter project that, in it's campaign sales pitch, overtly stated that it was a direct clone of the Makerbot Replicator . It was actually used as a selling point.

It brought enough of an emotional response out of me that, not only did I drop what I was doing, I also took the time to write a lengthy post, and paid $10 (as a project backer) to get that post published on Kickstarter.  After I did all that, I started trying to figure out why I went to such a length on this particular issue. I really don't do any 3-D printing and don't know the Makerbot guys personally. One of the guys I talk to regularly on Twitter postulated that the negative reaction to this project by the open source community might be a manifestation of the latent fears of the OSHW business model.

In my opinion, at least for my personal reasons for posting, it wasn't that. I come from a background where I used to be extremely involved in the hip-hop community, more specifically in the hip hop dance community. In that community, there isn't a lot of wealth or a potential for wealth. In fact, there isn't really very much money in it, period. Even so, most of the people in the community are extremely passionate about it, striving to improve the community, push the edge of the dance techniques further, incorporate new things into the hip hop dance genre, and generally living a life centered around dance.

The community was extremely egalitarian since most people understood that there wasn't a lot of money to be made being a dancer. Yet accepting that fact, still continuing to do it, and doing it with a passion was one of the beautiful aspects that I loved about dancer. In the dance community, all you really had was a reputation, and by being a positive contributor to the community, your reputation would grow. People that were famous within the hip hop dance communities were called ghetto celebrities, because everyone in the community knew them but were unknown outside of that. It was also possible to negatively affect your reputation and this would happen when you tried to do things that negatively impacted the community. Examples are thing like: exploiting other dancers by copying their moves and claiming them as your own (non-attribution) and selling out by doing things only for a profit motive while compromising your artistic integrity.

This idea of reputation, or social citizenship, is common in a lot of subcultures including dance, skating, music, DJ'ing, hula hooping, body piercing, etc. The performing arts genre is especially interesting because it's very analogous to open source hardware. Performing arts, by its nature, is open source. There is no such thing as performing arts where the art is not performed in front of an audience. The act of doing that leaves the artist open to reverse-engineering and copycats. There is nothing to prevent people from copying an artist, other than reputation, and in performing (or visual) ats, reputation can make or break you.

This brings me back to why I think the Tangibot Kickstarter campaign evoked such a strong emotional response from me. I view the open source hardware community as a community of artists. All of the designs in the community can be seen as the designer's art, an expression of what's important to the designer. So when I see someone that proudly trumpets the fact that they're copying a design of a respected member of the community, I only see someone that is selling out. They're pursuing a profit motive without regard to the impact it would have in the open source hardware community. What's worse, they're compromising their artistic integrity, their designer's voice, in their pursuit of money.

Do I really think that Makerbot would be affected by the Tangibot and be brought down by it? You can ask yourself an analogous question. Has a cover song ever achieved greater fame than the original song? Or for a direct case, has an Arduino clone ever outsold the Arduino? As an arduino clone maker that makes his own variation on the Arduino, I can say that my board's sales doesn't even register on the Arduino team's radar. So no, I would be extremely surprised if Makerbot is even marginally affected by Tangibot. In my opinion, copycats and cloning don't pose a significant threat to established OSHW designs. 

Regarding the comment I posted on the Tangibot Kickstarter, Matt Strong gave a response that addressed my objections to his campaign. I believe I have a better understanding of his motivations, but at the same time, I don't think he knows what he's getting into. The Arduino isn't as popular as it is because they make a PCB with a microcontroller and a standardized connector interface. It's popular because they first started thinking about how they could help artists learn about embedded technology. That gave rise to a simplified IDE, tons of tutorials, an extremely lively and active community, a plethora of interesting projects that most corporations would die for, neverending posts on its support forum, and ceaseless request for new features (ha ha ha). Makerbot almost singlehandedly brought 3-D printing into the mainstream, created a large community of fervent supporters around it, spoke about it around the world, and even forced companies like HP to get involved in home 3-D printing. I think that outsiders mainly see the product, but from my point of view as an insider manufacturing open source hardware, the real magic is in the ecosystem and community nurtured by companies like Arduino, Makerbot, Adafruit, and DIY Drones.

Interestingly enough, I also saw that Phil Torrone was also moved enough to become a backer merely to post his opinion. Phil Torrone comes from a skating background, yet another subculture where the chief currency is reputation. Phil seemed to take offense at the Tangibot's association of itself with the Makerbot name, almost criminal in the skating community.

So after a lot of thought, my conclusion is that the main reason I felt offended by someone trumpeting the fact they're creating a direct clone of someone else's design is that they're selling themselves short to pursue what looks like quick profit. That irritates me because I've been there and it's just a lack of confidence, a sign that you've been working in the corporate world too long. Everyone has a voice and it actually takes more work to copy a design than to create your own or even your own variation on an existing design. By personalizing the design, you're communicating to others what feels important to you about the particular product you created. This resonates in others that share the same feeling and they often become customers (or persistently ask you when you'll be selling the product, ha ha ha). A direct clone removes that whole dialog and reduces it to just trying to assume someone else's identity. In art, dance, and skating, that act is almost unforgivable.

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written by Kevin Townsend, August 11, 2012
Great read, and captures my own feeling pretty well. It has nothing to do with money, but it just irks me to be so shameless about adding zero creative or practical value. Just feels like a $500K me-too cash grab without giving anything back to further the open source initiative behind the campaign. Is it within the legal framework of OSHW ... absolutely! ... but it breaks the unwritten rule to always contribute something back when you take. I think I would have just ignored it if the attempt to add zero technical value wasn't so blatant.

The thing is ... the Makerbot products are good but far from perfect. There's lots of room for improvement, innovation, etc. I'd happily get behind someone who is trying to push that bar higher and BUILDING ON the work of others -- that's the guiding principle of open source -- but cash grab is all I can see here, and that's a fools errand. I'd be afraid he won't be able to deliver if he does get the $500K, simply because we both know first hand how complicated, demanding and risk prone this kind of thing really is, and it doesn't help if you're operating with very little financial room to move.

Again ... just my thoughts, but definately struck the same (bad) chord with me, and nothing whatsoever to do with fear of the OSHW business model. It's been paying my bills for years, and I'm happy to see people take stuff I've invested thousands of hours and dollars into a reuse it. But this just struck me as wrong, even if it's legally OK.
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written by Akiba, August 11, 2012
Ha ha ha. My thoughts exactly smilies/smiley.gif
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Agreed
written by Ross Hendrickson, August 13, 2012
Well, apparently I can't just 1 this post. 1?
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The Unwritten Rules of OSHW
written by Dave Jones, August 13, 2012
Some of my thoughts:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOUaoLjrNPo
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Come to say Hi
written by Helena Zhan, August 13, 2012
Hi Akiba,I checked your blog just now and found it is excellent.Are you engineer?
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written by Akiba, August 13, 2012
Yes, I'm an engineer. Thank you for the great cables. They are wonderful smilies/smiley.gif
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Judging from the comments, I don't think this guy can engineer his way out of a wet paper bag.
written by Terence Tam, August 14, 2012
My thoughts on this as well:
http://blog.openbeamusa.com/2012/08/11/how-not-to-win-friends-and-influence-people-on-kickstarter/
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written by Akiba, August 14, 2012
Hi Terence.
Thanks for the link. Just posted it on Twitter smilies/smiley.gif
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