Hackers crack the code of a new chip and post the design secrets on the Web. The chip's maker, instead of suing, holds fire. What gives?

Letting go of Lego

By Adam L. Penenberg

August 9, 1999

AS ROBOTS GO, Grrr is top dog. It can heed verbal commands, wag its tail and distinguish blue from green. Told to "get food," Grrr motors around and stops when it finds a few small sheets of blue paper. Told to "find home," it putters along until it locates a lone green square.

Pretty impressive--especially given that Grrr is made up almost entirely of Lego building blocks. But this pup's powers didn't come from Lego Group, which last fall unveiled Lego Mindstorms, programmable robot sets that snap together and run on proprietary microprocessors dubbed RCX.

Grrr, instead, is but one of many fantastical Lego inventions spawned by the "open-source" movement, the loose confederation of programmers who tinker with open software source code, add to it and share their contributions with the world. The Linux operating system is at the heart of open-source, cobbled together by thousands of programmers and now used by 10 million people. Recently Netscape has tried to harness the open-source movement to build support for its Web browser.

And so it is with Grrr, the canine creation of three graduate students at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, who worked with software coded by a 23-year-old Lego fan in Germany. But there is a difference between Linux and Lego. The company didn't release its chip design or source code. Enthusiasts unraveled the RCX's secrets and posted them on the Web--without Lego's permission.

Many corporations would have sued, and Lego executives admit they thought about it. Why they haven't and how their product has benefited offer lessons for business in the era of the Web.

Last fall, when Lego Mindstorms hit stores, one buyer, Stanford University grad student Kekoa Proudfoot, dissected his RCX, reverse-engineered the "byte code" virtual machine inside it and posted the specs on the Web. That let Lego enthusiast David Baum in Lake Zurich, Ill. write a compiler for designing software for it.

Then Markus Noga, the 23-year-old fan in Germany, where he attends the University of Karlsruhe, cranked out his own operating system, LegOS. He opened the code, posted it for free downloads on the Net and let like-minded Lego freaks have at it. And they did.

Mindstorms' official programming language, developed by Lego in cooperation with MIT, lets users create cool gadgets--like a miniature photocopier, a coin sorter and a light sensor. But real geeks wanted more power and flexibility. "We needed floating-point numbers and hyperbolic functions for our neural nets," says Jes Nielsen, one of Grrr's masters.

They found it on the Net, at www.multimania.com/legos--Noga's site. One visitor used Noga's LegOS to make a bar-code reader. Another is building an unmanned airborne vehicle to track animals.

The folks at Lego are staying neutral, so far. "We don't actively discourage it--and we don't actively encourage it," says Linda Dalton, global brand director for Lego Mindstorms.

Actually, Lego has little choice; suing might alienate grown-ups, who make up almost half of Mindstorms' sales. But laying off has helped the product. Some 80,000 units of the $200 kits were sold in just the first three months the product was on the market.

Lego should nurture the open-sourcers as a giant research-and-development lab, says Chunka Mui of Chicago-based Diamond Technology Partners. "Lego should encourage open-source and even provide them with tools and applications. Their best customers are, in essence, willing to work for them for free," he says.

"Open-source is a cool idea because it is a lot like Lego," Noga says. "You can take things apart, see how they work and incorporate other people's ideas into yours."

Copyright 1999