From Bits to Atoms: Open source hardware at CERN

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1 Citation (Web of Science)


Although considered a relatively recent phenomenon of the past decade, open source hardware (OSH) is already influencing commercial hardware development. However, a common belief is that the greater economic cost and complexity of hybrid digital objects (i.e., digital objects with both hardware and software) precludes their development with open source methods traditionally used for software. We study a sophisticated OSH named White Rabbit initiated at CERN and developed through a vibrant and heterogenous open source community. Our findings show that the assumption that hardware and software require fundamentally distinctive development and production modes should be replaced with a more nuanced differentiation characterized by three main attributes describing an object's composition: embodiment, modularity, and granularity. Taken together, these three attributes determine how a hybrid object is developed throughout its evolution in an open source community. Our research offers several contributions. First, we provide a more nuanced view of the consequences of the material embodiment of hardware. Once considered a simple deterrent to open source development, we describe how economic cost is subordinate to more influential aspects of an object's physical layers: as the open source community modifies the object to accommodate the operating requirements of diverse physical instantiations, such modifications can be incorporated in the logical design covered by the open source license. Additionally, we show how embodiment, modularity, and granularity progress through the object's evolution and how this maturation subsequently affects development modes. We trace the implications of our findings for hybrids and digital object conceptualizations in IS research, open source development and, more broadly, normative implications for OSH in scientific and commercial computing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)639-668
Number of pages30
JournalMIS Quarterly: Management Information Systems
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2023


  • Digital objects
  • Hybrid objects
  • Open source
  • Open source hardware


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