Last Thursday I was fortunate enough to take a trip to Raleigh to attend the All Things Open conference, and although I could only attend one of the two days, there was no shortage of information presented by industry experts and leaders in the technology and business realms.

Although interested in Open Source software, I wouldn’t classify myself an expert by any means, pretty much just knowing the big names like Mozilla, RedHat or Drupal and having used various frameworks in the past like Bootstrap. Apart from that, my knowledge in the area was pretty limited. This was therefore a valuable experience in that it presented software design and development in a way that I had heard in passing but never decided to dive deep into and understand more thoroughly.

Originally coming from a product design background, one particular topic throughout the event stood out to me. How ‘Open’ Changes Product Development’. This topic dealt with questions like ‘How can a product with no protected IP be competitive?’ or ‘What business models can be applied if a creation is freely available to others?’. Basically, what happens to the product development process and go to market strategy when you start giving stuff away?

So, let’s start with defining what a product actually is. A product, digital or non digital, is an object, piece of information or service created as a result of a process and serves to satisfy a need or want. Take a stool for example, an object created to satisfy the need to rest after standing for a period of time or serve the want to comfortably perform actions without standing.

So what is an ‘Open’ product then? Well, rather than being a single object, think of ‘Open’ products more like toolkits. Why? Because toolkits allow for contribution, collaboration and extension. Think of the stool again, but this time, it’s a stool from IKEA. It contains all the parts to create a stool, but out of the box it is just a pile of parts. You can choose to create a stool if you want, but you may choose to create a completely different object instead—say a toddler’s bike created from 2 stool sets (yes, it’s been done).

So, that’s cool and interesting—by modularising your product and letting others play and experiment you allow for more creativity. Who knows what else could be created. Now, what happens when you decide to give away your ‘Open’ product at no cost? What happens when you give out the diagram for the IKEA stool for free?

Here is a recent quote from a company that did exactly that.

Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers. We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish our position in this regard.

Tesla Motors

Tesla Motors publicly announced that the company would be applying the open source philosophy to all their patents, making them available to everyone. This isn’t to say they are giving away, or even officially licensing, their patents—they still own them. Rather they will not take any legal action against anyone wishing to use them. So why has Tesla done this and how does the open philosophy enable them here? Tesla’s goal may be to get other companies to use its battery technology so that there is a greater incentive for others to build an infrastructure of compatible electric charging stations nationwide. This requires making Tesla's technology more widely available, even to electric car competitors, in the hopes of growing the market and their future opportunity.

Will Tesla’s open patent move result in something as awesome as the IKEA stool toddler bike? I personally hope so! Thinking about products with an ‘open’ approach can produce some amazing results, whether you apply it to your next IKEA hack or possibly the next generation of transportation.

Additionally, a shout out to our very own Dustan Kasten who gave a stellar presentation on Modern Web Applications to a full house of developers furiously taking notes. Major props to his live coding efforts, too. Anyone who has given a live demo before knows Murphey’s law is in full force during this period and with an audience of over 150 people the pressure was certainly at a high. Well done, Dustan!