Linksys opens: WRT54G -> WRT54GL

I think this is extremely interesting. Linksys has a new home wireless router model, the WRT54GL which is clearly labeled as having a Linux base. At the same time the WRT54G brand is accumulating a large number of models and versions running a closes source OS (VxWorks).

It has been something of a mystery to me why none of the wireless router hardware vendors has tried this. One the one hand there are a lot of vendors and the barrier to becoming a vendor looks pretty low. On the other hand it’s clear there is a vibrant community of developers building hacks that complement routers that are open. Finally the cost of software on these things must be a significant part of the cost to enter the market.

One story I’ve been told, more than once, is the manufactures – who are mostly (all?) in Asia – think that the software is what differentiates them. So the idea of open software is strikes them as bizarre.

Another story I’ve been told is that the cost of goods is so tightly managed that if you suggest adding a bit more memory everybody thinks your a idiot. I find this arguement to be lame; the cost of goods is a very small part of the cost at the point of sale.

To me, these arguments totally miss the point. There is a high probability that an open standard hardware platform on devices of this form factor can aggregate a huge universe of complements. The stuff already available around these devices is very impresive. Phone PBXs for heaven sakes!

What’s really fascinating about the Linksys move is you can see right thru to their product manager meetings. Obviously they argued and argued about how open their devices should be.

Open: Are you crazy. Give it away? Madness.

Open: We should close the loophole, asap!

We build ’em. We get it right. We make it dependible. We rule the channel. We add features users want. We will be rich!

Open: We must open the platform. Differentiate with complements. We will sit at the center of a new platform, this could be bigger than Microsoft! We will be rich!

Open: Look! Dudes. It’s already open. It’s already producing these marvelous complements. This goose is laying golden eggs!

Closed: Great! We don’t need to be more open. We can get the benifit without the bother and the risk of being open.

The open side then says: Yeah! If we don’t do it somebody else will. It’s easy, it’s obvious.

The closed side responds: Sure, but we rule the distribution channels to it won’t do them any good.

Open: Internet distribution.

Closed: Yeah right; someday maybe – but not yet.

… that debate goes on an on …

Finally they do what rich firms do when they can’t agree. They decide to do both. So now we have two platforms. One closed and one open.

It allows them to do discriminatory pricing. For example the L version could be shipped only via internet channels, with lousy software, at a lower price point. Or the L version could be shipped at a higher price point. Depends on what they want to achieve.

It’s not a risk-less move. It’s very likely to trigger other vendors, particularly small ones, into shipping a more open box. But if they do it gives Linksys a way to respond; they just lower the price of the L version to deny them way into the market.

So the L version acts a signal to competitors.

If the closed guys won the debate then I’d expect them to charge more for this version; and then use it as a way signal other vendors to stay out of the open platform space.

Very complex. Very interesting.

0 thoughts on “Linksys opens: WRT54G -> WRT54GL

  1. Henri Yandell

    Linksys have been using Linux for a bit now. Their NSLU-2’s are built on Linux and have a strong hacker market, (http://www.nslu2-linux.org/), so I suspect your suggested meeting happened a fair while ago and now they can just look at how their Linux products are doing. Also, it doesn’t seem that the WRT54’s have been running vxworks for long, before that they ran Linux.

  2. bhyde

    Henri – It’s my impression that LinkSys was an unwilling participant in revealing the source of both the WRT54G and the NSLU line. In-spite of the GNU license there are a huge range of passive resistant means available to them to avoid opening the platform. It appears that that WRT54GL is the first time they have explicitly decided to forgo those methods.

  3. Peter

    It’s pretty simple, really – it’s that VxWorks is a lot smaller than Linux (especially if you’re using a newer kernel) – so by switching they could halve the size of the flash and RAM. If you’re making as many of these things as they are, that quickly works out as a real cost saving (the cost of a VxWorks license drops drastically as you get to larger volumes – so it’s probably almost zero at this point).

    I think they wanted to cut costs, but were also aware that a lot of people were attracted to the device because of the third party mods, and this lets them do both.

  4. Ben Hyde

    I, on the other hand, think that the chance the cost of goods was a significant driver of this design choice are vanishingly small. The retail cost vastly greater than the cost of manufacture. What’s simple is that this is mismanagement of the option space that is latent in these devices. That devolves directly from their ignorance about how to be a platform vendor.

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