The beauty of the Open-era: Hacking the tech industry with open technology
Blockchain, Narrow Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing, 5G, Autonomous Vehicles are some of the latest 21st century’s boasted technologies and innovation having a high degree of applied science has caught all of our attention. While the majority (not every) of these boosted technologies found their birth in localised R&D, in the private or public sector, and developed by a handful of people, a growing proportion of tech applications are coming from organisations that are decentralised or boosted by an open source and open IP(Intellectual Property) approach.
This article is the first amongst a series of articles which will describe, in the main lines, the role of decentralisation, and the sharing economy philosophy, in the process of disrupting the tech market.
Linux’s contribution to the tech Industry
In 1991, 21 year old finish computer engineer Linus Torvalds, provided the base ground for the Linux Kernel. If you haven’t attended any computer science course, then it might be normal that you haven’t heard about Linus Torvalds or Linux. But rest aside, you will soon understand the impact of decentralised innovation in the software and big data industry.
Linux is an open source and decentralised project which powers 100% of the world’s supercomputers and powers all the major servers in the world’s datacenters. From the US Department of Defense, Dutch Police internet forensics, Turkish Government, Venezuela’s Government, Russian Government to the White House, they all have their own Linux Kernel. Meanwhile, only 1,93% of all desktop operating systems worldwide work on Linux thanks to Microsoft, MAC and Chrome OS standing on the world podium. However, without Linux, you would not actually be able to read this article, watch an episode on Netflix, use the latest instagram filters, order a car via Uber or make a buy order of your favorite crypto on Coinbase or Binance.
Linux hacking its growth strategy:
The more an open technology is diffused, the more the usage can be improved by iteration (correction of bugs) and by the contribution of volunteers in providing new add-ons or innovative products. Moreover, the growth of the community of users can help to boost the relationships and communication between different actors (client, developers, students, integrators), which can favor the apparition of new complementary products and services. In contrast to GNU Hard, which took a more centralised approach, Linux has adopted a decentralized organisation (with a strong coordination work from the Linux Foundation) which can explain the major success of Linux over its numerous competitors in the industry. The adoption has therefore been boosted by decentralization and the latter model has encouraged standardization of best practices and elimination of bad practices by the community.
Thanks to its decentralised innovation approach, the Linux Foundation contributed (directly and indirectly) over 1.15 billion lines of code to private companies. As of Nov 2021, The linux Github repository counts over 1 million commits and the linux foundation states that the Total Shared Value created from the collective contributions of the Linux foundation community is estimated to be 54 billions of dollars.
No hardware, No Digital Revolution.
According to CLARIVATE Top 100 Global Innovators, semiconductors companies represent 11% of the Top 100 most innovative companies in 2021. Europe is highly dependent on the US and Asia for semi-conductors and according to ESIA (European Semiconductor Industry Association), overall micro and nano-electronics enable the generation of at least 10% of GDP in Europe and in the world. The semiconductor industry is a strategic industry for the sovereignty of a country’s economy and we often tend to forget that the digital economy relies on strong hardware technologies and industrial capabilities.
For instance, the computing power required to beat Lee Seedol at the Go game, was a cumulating use of 1202 CPUs and 176 GPUs. This latter example gives us an idea of the importance of hardware innovation and software optimisation in the development of the Artificial Intelligence industry.
Hacking the unhackable business!
Open technology is not limited to software, NetFPGA, OpenPicus, Arduino, RepRap, UpSat, just to name a few, are examples of open-source hardwares. While those solutions are often used in academic institutions and in DIY projects, these open-source hardwares are not suitable at large scales for industrial applications in the Defense, Aerospace, Automotive and IoT industry.
The project which might disrupt the Semiconductor industry in the next decade might be RISC-V, a project managed by the non-profit association RISC-V International, which has its origins from Berkeley and has the ambition to enable a new era of processor innovation through open standard collaboration.
The general public tend to think that the business model of semiconductor companies such as Intel, AMD, NVIDIA, Qualcomm or ARM relies mainly on the industrial processes (via foundries) involved in manufacturing chips, but this is not the case for all semiconductor companies.
For instance companies like ARM, which equips most of the IoT and smartphone chips, is a Fabless company and has a business model mainly based on licensing its IP (Long story short: Neither does ARM commercialise processors nor does it manufacture them).
With RISC-V, anyone can make their own chip by using an open source ISA (Instruction Set Architecture). The ISA is the “vocabulary” the processor needs for it to understand the “instructions” from the programmer. Without getting into the technical details, RISC-V proposes an alternative to the Licenced Intel Binaries or Arm Binaries (core of the Business Model of these latter companies).
“The instruction Set Architecture is the vocabulary the processor needs for it to understand the instructions from the programmer.”
RISC-V has therefore tackled the core of the value chain of companies such as ARM and Intel. By providing free and open-source ISA, RISC-V has attracted the eyes of CEA, Thales, DARPA or even Huawei. Any country (having a proper commercial relationship with a semiconductor industrial supplier) can use RISC-V solutions to build appropriate chips for specific applications in medical, aerospace, automobile, IoT or Smartphone industry.
The open-source software and hardware wave, can be a potential solution for France to use its private semiconductor companies and public funded labs (such as KALRAY, SOITEC, CEA & others) to develop chips that are adequate to support France and European civil industrial needs (may be defense too?).
“RISC-V has broken down barriers in the semiconductor industry, bringing together different companies, industries, and geographies for open collaboration. RISC-V combines a modular technical approach with an open license business model, meaning that anyone, anywhere can leverage the IP contributed and produced by RISC-V International.” : RISC-V International
It is interesting to observe, independent of the level of technology, how people are using the sharing economy to innovate. From software to hardware, high-tech Innovation actors are organizing themselves all around the world by making abstractions of borders and origins in order to disrupt long established Tech Markets through decentralisation and introduction of new open standards.
With the semiconductor shortage reaching its peak at the beginning of 2021, the car industry in Europe has got a first backlash of what is expected to become a potential showstopper in the next decade for Europe’s industry and its long-haul semiconductor production deficit. Companies such as SiFive or OpenFive, based on RISC-V solutions, have already seen the light in California and European start-ups shall follow the lead, since there are no technological barriers on paper.
Last summer, we witnessed Intel’s failure in acquiring SiFive, an acquisition which would have brought the valuation of SiFive to 2billion dollars according to Bloomberg. While Nvidia is trying to acquire Arm from SoftBank for 40 billion dollars, we will definitely be witnessing a big battle in the semiconductor industry between the giants to acquire SiFive in the near future.
RISC-V solutions are today not mature enough to disrupt existing solutions from Arm or Intel. According to Ark Invest’s Big Ideas 2021, combination of RISC-V and ARM solutions will move from 0% market share to 72% of the server market share in 2030. Even though the latter figures remain speculative, we can definitely spot a weak signal from the semiconductor market. The question which remains is, how will French actors of the industry (or European ones in general) transform this weak signal into a potential strong signal for the industry.
In the next article, we will see how decentralisation is being managed in the Crypto industry, and how DAO’s (Decentralised Autonomous Organization) are innovating to help build new decentralized and permissionless services through blockchain.
Les propos tenus dans cet article n’engagent que leurs auteurs et non le MTI Review.