Is ASUS Jump-Starting the Open-Source Hardware Community?

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June 29, 2017
Thoughts by
Patrick Murphy
ASUS Open-source hardware community

ASUS and the community of modders

ASUS is the number one manufacturer of motherboards in the world, commanding almost a 40% market share of the motherboard business.

Today, one in every three computers houses an ASUS motherboard. Founded in Taipei in 1989, ASUS has also expanded its offerings from computer components to include desktops, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, and a bevy of other electronic and computing peripherals.

You may have never heard of them - but chances are if you’re at all into building your own computers they’re at the top of your wish list for parts. A beacon of innovation and quality for the PC enthusiast community, they also serve a dedicated subset of these enthusiasts called modders.  

Before we go any further, let's define "modding":

“Modding is a slang expression that is derived from the verb 'modify.' Modding refers to the act of modifying hardware, software, or virtually anything else, to perform a function not originally conceived or intended by the designer, or achieve a bespoke specification.”

Those that modify personal computers are known as “modders.” PC enthusiasts thoughtfully construct high-end PC's, but modders take their obsession to the next level with deep aesthetic and functional customizations not possible with off-the-shelf components.

In this community of curious tinkerers, the goal is to create the fastest, highest-performing, most aesthetically pleasing PC as possible by using state-of-the-art components, custom water cooling systems, and intricate cable management solutions. Some creations feature elaborate RGB lighting effects, and even detailed thematic elements. A HALO, Steampunk, or My Little Pony-themed PC? It’s all been done.

Fueled by the PC-building community’s inexhaustible thirst for speed and flexibility, the market for PC components has considerably evolved over the last 10-15 years, with ASUS maintaining significant market share in that evolution. About halfway through last year ASUS introduced an interesting concept specifically aimed at modders: 3D printed parts for the ASUS platform.

3D printing custom parts for use in PC mods didn’t originate with the program - dubbed “The ASUS 3D Printing Project” - it’s been happening in modder circles for quite some time. But this is the first time a hardware company has taken the cues from this community and built in product features that directly support this activity - and gone as far as to create “starter” parts that serve as both ready-to-print upgrades and templates for creating new designs.

Through ASUS community forums, enthusiasts can download the CAD files, tweak them, and print physical components to install on the ASUS platform.

The customizable parts supported thus far include fan mounts, grills, cable concealers and combs, SLI-bridge plates, port shields, and vanity badges. You may have no idea what these things are - just know the collection is a veritable toy box for modders. For the inexperienced wanting to get into the modding game, the ASUS platform offers a low barrier to entry for light system modification - especially with the ability to print parts cheaply through a 3D printing service like Shapeways. For the hardcore modder with CAD skills and a 3D printer, the opportunities are virtually endless.

Why this is so interesting to us at Trig isn't really the fact that 3D printing is being used to modify computers - although at face value that’s pretty cool.

The real nugget of awesome here is that through this initiative, ASUS is encouraging modification at the community level and actually tailoring its products to support the creative outpouring that follows.

“Here’s our product - we want you to tweak it to make it work better for you.” This has huge implications to the product world - the world we live and breathe each day.

This application of 3D printing is reminiscent of the open-source software community. Open-source software (OSS) is computer software with its source code made available with a license in which the copyright holder provides the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose. By ASUS encouraging modders to print their own components that fit into their platform, they are also encouraging open-source hardware communities to flourish and build on their platform - effectively speeding up their own platform development without restricting creativity to just the ASUS team.

Open-source hardware isn't necessarily a new concept, it just hasn't been as widely adopted as the open-source software movement (see Red Hat, Facebook, Google, Amazon, to name a few open-source adopters). Open-source hardware activities were started around 1997 by Bruce Perens, creator of the Open Source Initiative.

Unfortunately, most open-source hardware activities faded out until the introduction of several major open-source projects and companies came to light around 2007 - the most notable of these is Arduino.

Arduino came about the same way Linux came about. A man by the name of Massimo Banzi was was a teacher at a high tech design school in Ivrea, Italy, and his students often complained they couldn't find an inexpensive, powerful microcontroller to drive their arty robotic projects. In winter 2005, Banzi was discussing the problem with David Cuartielles, a Spanish microchip engineer who was a visiting researcher at the school. The two decided to design their own board and enlisted one of Banzi's students—David Mellis—to write the programming language for it. Five days later and the board was complete. They called it the Arduino, after a nearby pub, and it was an instant hit with the students. Now Arduino is a hit amongst modders, hardware tinkerers, and the rest of the tech community.

With projects and companies like Arduino spinning up, the hardware community could work together to efficiently improve on hardware components, and with the introduction of ASUS' 3D printing project, the community has a platform to configure these components into something useful to the average consumer.

This move places a company like ASUS at the forefront of hardware development, as open-source methodology is proven to be the most efficient way to advance technology.

As 3D printing technology improves, approaches like the one taken by ASUS become more and more promising. Imagine rather than designing a fan mount in CAD, having the ability to actually improve the fan's design and functionality, then share that design on the ASUS forum for other modders to tinker with. Let’s jump a little further into the future now: Imagine introducing an open-source motherboard platform that let users configure processing components in different ways on an ASUS motherboard, in the pursuit of better performance on a specific application - creating a new architecture that ASUS engineers hadn't yet thought of themselves. This is the spirit of modding, the spirit of open-source.

At Trig we're constantly monitoring the evolution of 3D printing because we know it brings our skillsets into new frontiers. We're excited by the possibility of more open-sourced communities in hardware and the physical world because it puts the power of design in the consumer’s hands. We're excited to see if other companies, not just ASUS, adopt this way of thinking and advance our world.

What other companies do you think could capitalize on an open-source community like the one ASUS has introduced? Send us a message, and let us know what you think.

Patrick Murphy
Senior Industrial Designer

Today, despite having numerous success stories in his portfolio, Patrick believes his education is far from over as he searches for new ways to bridge the gap between problem and solution, solution and product, product and user.


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