[Phillip Torrone] Pleads For Companies To Open Source Discontinued Projects

[PT] just published an editorial calling on manufactures to transfer knowledge about products they are discontinuing by making them open source. He makes his case on the basis that millions of dollars and innumerable man hours go into developing these products, only to be lost when the company decides that the project is no longer (or maybe never was) profitable. We have to say he’s got a point. Granted the answer to “why not?” is that companies don’t want to give any help to their competitors. But just think of the opportunities lost to society when we can’t build on the work of others.

Now [Phillip] doesn’t stop with his plea for new policies. He goes on to list and defend a few products that are already dead and buried, for which he wishes the secrets had first been shared. These include the Palm V personal data assistant, IBM’s Deep Blue, Sony’s robotic toys/pets, and several others. For what it’s worth, we can think of one company that’s a shining example of this; the source code for Doom, which id Software released for non-profit use more than a decade ago. Good for you id!

48 thoughts on “[Phillip Torrone] Pleads For Companies To Open Source Discontinued Projects

  1. Software companies, especially.


    They refused to even SELL me the code for 25k, which is more than what their entire final year brought in. Great game, they killed it with dozens of servers on launch, along with near zero advertizing.

    They merged the servers far too late; even their bonuses they gave for renewers died; people found other games.

    Amazing, I’ve only encountered ONE bug in the game, which is something I do out of habit. They fixed it immediately. I miss that game…one of the best MMOs out there besides EVE and Anarchy Online. *sigh*

  2. This is so wrong. It sets the wrong idea about open source.

    It should read “If you want ti give it a chance of life again, open source it!”
    If you want to kill something, then you bury it, deeply.

  3. I like the idea – but this is so complex I don’t think it will catch on. For instance there are many projects which die but the Intellectual Property (design & software) lives on in other commercial projects. Even if there is only a chance it will live on commercially, I don’t see owners giving up hope.

    The only way I see this working is to get the owners buy in at the beginning. Admittedly not easy. Didn’t the guy that started TIVO do that? Didn’t he say if TIVO went under that the source code would be released?

    Hum, maybe this movement needs a “If we go under we’ll give you the source code” label. You know. Like the “dolphin safe” label or the “this food is kosher” label. Copyright it and add a trivial charge for it to support the effort’s web presence. See if you can get a lawyer from that “free software foundation” place to look it over. Say: “With this label, customers would be more willing to buy your product”.

    Hum, I like this idea. Now it’s starting to sound possible.

  4. st2000 makes a valid point that can’t be ignored. We’ve seen IP that gets buried only to be reawakened after a few generations either as an organic rebirth, or as a result of an acquisition from another company. These trade secrets, patents, and other forms of IP may be useless in the present, but may be valuable in the future. Open sourcing may destroy this exclusivity.

    BUT the article makes a good point too. Open sourcing doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing IP rights. And we all know how valuable open source projects and content can be. This is definitely a case-by-case thing.

    If I were to ever go on and earn my Ph.D. in some field of business (marketing/new product development…or even my JD if I ever got interested in IP law), I would love to explore this topic as I’m willing to bet the level of scholarly research on this is very limited.

  5. I’m still sad about BeOS. Sold to Palm about 7 years ago, they didn’t do anything with it, HP buys Palm, and now I’m sure I’ll never see it again. By far the best OS in the late ’90s and early 2000’s. They had a database filesystem when microsoft was just talking about “WinFS!”

  6. Hm, I guess I’m conflicted on this now that I think about it.

    “Dead” projects might be “dead” for a number of reasons; no market, no reasonable/efficient use at the time, change in company direction, production or distribution hardships, or simply lack of funding.

    A company that goes bankrupt cannot declare something they have given away to be of any satisfactory value when dealing with creditors in court. Keeping things secret by killing them might be a valuable resource to them should things go wrong…

    When intermittent windshield wipers were “developed”, the assumption was nobody wanted them. Within a short time, it was bad to NOT have them. When society or technology changes, that “useless” thing might become a valuable tool in the future.

    The owners of the property should be the deciding factor in all cases I can think of so far.

    I also see this:
    Company ABC decides to kill their product, and makes it open source, without any benefit other than PR that they may have to pay for.
    [DudeHax0r_911lol] will take this, make something useful out of it, but only 1% is his creation. He sells the idea to an entrepreneur and makes a fast buck. It’s now copyrighted because it isnt 100% OS. Problems arise and the investor cant raise enough money to do anything with it, so he lets it die.

    The originator gets nothing, an investor loses money, and the product is still dead…and [DudeHax0r_911lol] barely does anything and makes money off it.

    That’s kinda “wrong”

    @st2000 I *LOVE* your idea. Will enough people care, though? I assume most of “our” friends like the same things and hack, but thats how we seem to think everyone is, as its our own closed circle of friends. When I meet new people, most couldnt give a crap about hacking or my hobby, no matter how much it relates to their interests…much like how I dont pollute the sea or kill animals for the hell of it but I could care less about a “dolphin-free” label on my tuna. I just want good tuna.

    Much to think about with this one…

  7. There are a few projects that I wish were done this way, Ultima X Online, Ultima 8 pt 2, and the drivers for the Aiptek Tablet I have XD.

    (Seriously, do they think APEtek was a good marketing strategy?)

  8. Will never happen. Corporations are like the greedy brat on the playground not sharing his ball.


    Very few understand how to be a civilized member of society and give back or share.

  9. Not going to happen, as they would then basically be competing against themselves. That have been the basic problem for industries of all kinds since post-WW2. Humanity have become so good at making stuff that we can potentially flood the world with cheap devices that last virtually forever with a bit of basic maintenance. So the only real way to keep the capitalist system going is to make sure that they do not last forever. And that is done via parts that is engineered to break after x years, with no replacements stocked (except for replacing it with a whole new device, that starts the cycle all over again). Planned obsolescence basically.

  10. I like the solution where it’s either hacked or other open source projects force them to open source their own.

    Asking nicely never hurt though. But if they don’t want to be nice, well that’s the environment they want, they get it.

  11. Forget the big stuff – how about if they just open source things like scanner/printer/widget drivers? I have seen lots of old hardware no longer used simply because there are no drivers available for them in upgraded OS versions. Perfectly functional hardware is trashed for no good reason. If the drivers were open-sourced, these products could continue to be useful.

  12. one quick thing i wanted to add (and mention here) – many people do open source hardware, just one of the many reasons is to preemptively deal with many of challenges people are bringing up. when you do OSHW your work and designs can/will outlive yourself & companies.

  13. I agree win most posts on this subject. I just want to add my 2 cents, I have designed a comercial product that died, however, a core piece of technology in it, I still use in other products. I can only assume this is par for the course on alot of hardware?

  14. I think a few other people made this point that the source for alot of dead stuff isn’t exactly dead. Most companies like to just make a new product without it truly being new. Nintendo’s projects come to mind. The DS still uses the same type of hardware and and software down the generations along with the gamecube and WII. Maybe even with their new upcoming console. Or photoshop and windows for another example. Don’t expect win 95 to be open source because they still use alot of that stuff in it today!

    Most companies just rebrand their stuff to resale as “new,” but internally it’s the same product in a different shell with new bells and whistles.

    So no this stuff isn’t going to get released because they still use it in those new products.

  15. While listening to Science Friday on NPR on the subject of annoying things and sounds etc, I see the most annoying phone keypad I have ever seen.
    Crush it now!
    There is a simple solution though to the problem. Don’t buy closed source anything, yet alone arty-farty designed goods. Don’t read closed source info. Fill the dock at Goodwill, cause that’s what we are told to do with our e-trash in Indiana now.

  16. Here’s another example: Intel released the schematics and mask sets to the 4004 CPU.

    Many other “commercial” chips have been re-created in source form at the OpenCores site.

    If something is truly popular and worthwhile, the open-source community often re-creates something similar, whether or not the original is extinct.

  17. All of the comments so far have missed one glaring point.

    Product A may depend on Product B, C and D licensed from 3 different companies. Often, B, C and D will give source code licenses to Company A so they can make Product A.

    Product A is now a flop/dead but the codebase includes product B, C and D’s source, sometimes customized just for Product A.

    They could release Product A’s source code, but it is probaby useless without B, C, and D’s source too, all of which may still be viable products / libraries.

  18. I think st2000’s idea would have the opposite effect, wouldn’t it? If you want to have the source to something, wouldn’t you refrain from buying it so that it /does/ go under? I doubt if there are enough hackers/makers on either side (would buy/wouldn’t buy) to make a difference, though.

    I think we just need a complete reboot of the patent/trademark system. It’s gotten way out of hand.

  19. Sounds like a good idea but it wouldn’t fare well with companies and software. Any large hardware/software company would have code that they don’t want released for a variety of reasons- private or secret code (such as a cipher key) has been used, vulnerabilities may (and probably do) exist, code is shared with other devices, etc. I bet phone companies don’t want you taking a look at the way they encrypt network traffic. If a company donates code to the public and vulnerabilities are found then the current users of the product are screwed, that company no longer maintains the product. If the company releases code then the methods used could be compared to current products to reverse-engineer it.
    Donating code may be benevolent but the risk isn’t worth it to most companies. The code will benefit very few and could endanger the company or its users.

  20. I think source code should be released NOT after a company stops selling a product, but after it stops SUPPORTING it (which admittedly for the listed products happened at the same time). The pressure on companies should be either continue to support the products already sold, or let out the documents. Unfortunately, too much wonderful stuff gets effectively lost in big warehouses, just like that thing at the end of “Raider of The Lost Arc.”

  21. Open Source, and capitalism aren’t incompatible. Open source may be incompatible with an economic model based ever growing consumption beyond basic survival needs. In any event if open source is going to be anything, it’s going have prove it can create products that people want to purchase. And that those products can be manufactured for a fair return on investment. I’m not sure for calling for open source for products, that have already shot their wad as the general public is concern, can move open source along. Folks it’s called commerce. Commerce takes place in every society, even under communism. Perhaps not within North Korea, but that country, is a sad exception to the rest of the world in most regards.

  22. There’s really no reason for them to do this, especially because they probably re-use old software and hardware designs in-house, and they don’t want to give them away.

    “Dead” products can still make their companies money, too, especially software companies. Take a look at Nintendo, for instance, who often remakes their old games into newer ones, or Microsoft, who loves to reuse code.

    Would it be cool? Yeah, I mean, it would be nice for a specific group of people to have the source available to them, but from a business standpoint, it’s a loss.

  23. I’m sorry, but Phillip is an idiot.

    Yes, MANY man hours go into the development of such a product.

    What happens to those man hours?


    Phillip is asking manufacturers to give up millions of dollars of knowledge and experience gained by their investment. Why the HELL would anyone do that? It makes no sense! It would give your competitors an inside look in to your engineering practices.

    Phillip, you need to take your mouth off of the bong, and go get a dose of reality. It would do you a lot of good!

  24. Who is greedier…the corporations who spend millions on developing things, or the hacker community that want everything for free without even a “thank you” to corporations that ALREADY have provided so many free things.

    As far as you non-engineer types, are you actually accusing me of engineering things to break in order to make MORE money? Are you stupid? Look at car ownership loyalty. There’s a reason people stopped buying GMs in the late 70s and early 1980s; the quality didn’t exist; old designs were thrown together with barely a style change and all the union workers didnt care either, so they werent even built right.

    You whacko “anti-capitalists” need to GTFO, you lunatics. If there was a conspiracy, someone would have talked by now, not just you guys who arent in the loop at all.

    I hate where these threads always go. Always catering to imaginary charity rather than the pursuit of knowledge. Jerkwads.

  25. @KanchoBlindside

    The only place that these people can call themselves “hackers” is here, at a site where the term is used so loosely that it no longer has meaning.

    The days of real hackers are virtually gone, with few people actually truly reverse engineering a product and then modifying it (ON THEIR OWN) to do something that it was never meant to do. Instead, they feed off of write-ups and do-it-yourself instructions of past projects, then get their material posted as if they have done something worth mentioning.

    Don’t get me wrong, creativity still exists, but a vast majority of *real* hackers are employed as some sort of engineer, and therefore their work is generally not published! You may see the end result of their work as a finished product, but the intermediate steps (like reverse engineering the competitor’s product) will never be published.

    I get kind of sick of a bunch of non-hackers patting each other on the back and calling each other “hackers”, but at the same time, I find the site intriguing, mainly due to the occaisonal interesting write-up such as the one relating to the remote-control hummingbird a while back :D

  26. There are a lot of us that would like to see the source code for Honda ECUs from 1988-1995 released (with some comments please!) so we can stop poking through raw assembly code trying to figure out wtf the Honda engineers were up to. Given that OBDII has rendered all the old hardware and software obsolete there’s not much to protect.

    Although now that I think about it, competitors to Honda’s small engines would probably like to have that knowledge to get a leg up on fuel injection.

    I still want it though!

  27. Sometimes there are safety or regulatory issues with open-sourcing stuff. (car ECUs being an example of where open-sourcing them could lead to safety issues, especially on cars with computer controlled safety systems like airbags or to regulatory issues related to things like emissions)

  28. I agree to some extent to open source. My pet peeve is car makers the claim “proprietary rights” to obsolete hardware. I have a 1988 Mercury. one of the first all electronic displays. No way to repair or troubleshoot it because of “PRights”. The same goes for older, but perfectly functional printers, scanners, cameras, etc.
    The iFixit manifesto has the right idea.

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