Articles / An Economy of Code

An Economy of Code

Like many gadgetphiles, I was intrigued by the story that appeared on Slashdot a couple of months ago about TecHomation's "Toys for Code" program, and applied for membership right away. A week later, the first package arrived, and since then, I've had an encouraging glimpse into a unique Open Source economy, one that doesn't ask how to make money from Free Software, but how to get Free Software in exchange for something all hackers love -- technotoys. A brief overview for those who don't remember the original story:

TecHomation has been creating home automation products for the past five years. Although sales have been good, they've become concerned about stagnation in the industry and the lack of truly new ideas. The buzz around Open Source development methods caught their attention, and they decided that bringing the Internet community into their work might provide the spark of life they need to bring back the excitement they remembered from the days when they hacked together their first X10 lamp module in their basement.

They came up with the "Toys for Code" program, which works this way:

  1. You register at their Web site and give them your address.
  2. They mail the Level 1 package to you.
  3. You write code to control the modules in the package.
  4. You put up a Web site detailing what you've done and making the code available (and giving TecHomation credit and linking to them).
  5. You give them the address of your page.
  6. They review it, link to it from the TecHomation Gallery on their site, and put the Level 2 package in the mail to you.

Level 1 gives you an X10 power module, a temperature sensor, a camera, and the TecHomation Control Pad, with a manual explaining each component and how to program for it in your favorite language. They say "Here are the pieces, and here's what each of them can do. Put them together into something interesting."

If you've been to the Gallery, you know that some people have come up with truly astounding ideas for combining these seemingly incongruous components. Luckily, we don't all have to be as clever as Phil or Bob (whose projects are currently leading the Level 1 Community Choice poll). All that TecHomation cares about is that you did something to put all the pieces to use. If you go to my homepage, you'll see the run-of-the-mill Perl scripts I wrote to drive the hardware in my home. It's nothing very original, but my humble work was included in the Gallery just like everyone else's, and my Level 2 package was in the mail to me the next day. The people at TecHomation are confident that just by having such a large number of contributors, some great work will inevitably appear, and so far, they've been right. The experiment has been a smashing success, and has provided them with more code and ideas than their R&D team was able to generate in the past year.

The program has been a big win on both sides. Most people had probably never heard of TecHomation, and now the TecHies get free advertising from us on three fronts: whenever someone comes across one of our Web sites and clicks the link to them, whenever someone visits our homes and says "Wow, what was that?" when we do something with the Control Pad, and by word-of-mouth at LUG meetings and the like, where discussions of the Level packages and what we're all doing with them have become inevitable. In addition to exposure, they get a mountain of code they can review and adopt or adapt to their new products. They're well aware that the next generation of home automation consumers will not be hobbiests who want to tinker and hack, but people who want something that can just be plugged in and turned on. The TecHies are letting us code outside the devices now so they can move the code onto the hardware later.

From our side, the benefits are not only the cool free hardware dropped in our laps, but the same incentives that have always driven Free Software. Since TecHomation requires that code must be released under the GPL before a Level can be passed, hackers know that they're writing code that they and everyone else in the community will be able to use freely. In the comments to the Slashdot story, skeptics asked "What's to keep people from just copying someone else's code in order to pass through a level?", but that hasn't been a problem. People take pride in their code, and enjoy the fame that comes from being in the Gallery and the encouragement of people who congratulate them and submit patches. They would no sooner take someone else's code than wear their underwear.

It's been an enormously positive experience all around, and a proof that this interesting software economy can work for the mutual advantage of those who sell the hardware and those who pay for it with their software. There have been no problems that I've seen, aside from the hardware defect that made them release the new Level 2. I'm currently up to Level 6, and beginning to seriously lust after the network-tuned radio that's just a few levels away.

I hope more people will sign up and join the fun. If you haven't already, head over to TecHomation's Web site and get started. You'll find lots of TecHies waiting to help in #techomation on the Open Projects Network.

Recent comments

04 Apr 2001 02:32 Avatar SirJoltalot

Umm.. whoa.
Hehe.. I read this a few days after so I totally wasn't
thinking 'bout April Fools, and yah got
me!What I don't get though, is if you're
going to have an April Fools joke, why this? I mean
it's not particularly funny, once one realises that it's
a joke. It's good in that it's written well and is
moderately plausible, so quite a few people will be
had. But once they're had, they're probably more
annoyed than amused...

02 Apr 2001 13:11 Avatar philho

Re: From the same Jeff Covey...

> It's an intelligent joke and an
> interesting concept anyway. If it said
> you'd receive a basic "Firecracker" kit
> as part of Level 1, I would probably
> believe the first paragraphs. :)

Well, I must admit I believed it, until I re-read the sentence about the Level 1 kit: I first though you have to pay to receive it, but indeed, you just have to register.

Here is the flaw: how to be sure to get code in exchange of the kit?

What prevent you to subscribe and send nothing in return, just to get the camera?

Nice concept though. So nice we wanted to believe in it...

01 Apr 2001 14:19 Avatar paganini

From the same Jeff Covey...
From the same Jeff Covey that brought you, just a few lines below, "All your base are belong to us"... :)

It's an intelligent joke and an interesting concept anyway. If it said you'd receive a basic "Firecracker" kit as part of Level 1, I would probably believe the first paragraphs. :)

01 Apr 2001 14:15 Avatar criswell

Re: Well conceived idea ;)

> % Almost had me going for a few
> seconds
> % there ....
> Sounds a little too well-conceived to
> be funny in
> my opinion.
> Where's the joke? This almost seems
> like it could
> be real...

I agree (and with a comment lower on this list)... If this is a joke, it isn't very funny.

There is already a lot of X10 work being done, and a lot of pages devoted to it (just take a look at )....

So if it's a funny April fools day prank you want... check out lzip:

01 Apr 2001 13:43 Avatar jkazos

This pisses me off.
It's enough pain trying to deal with people who "just can't understand why we don't want what companies want", but now we're being made fun of? This is not some amusing prank, this is a carefully-crafted slap to our faces.


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