Do robots need a Linux or a Mac OS to thrive?

Robotics company Willow Garage yesterday created an open-source body to shepherd the development of its ROS (Robot Operating System). Called the Open Source Robotics Foundation, the goal is get more people writing software for robots, particularly for commercial and consumer use, say its creators.

Everyone agrees robots need killer apps to graduate beyond curiosities and cool demos, much the way the spreadsheet helped catalyze the PC movement. And developers need pre-built software platforms on which to create interesting uses for robots, whether it’s a home robot to fold your laundry or a moon explorer.

But there’s a debate as to whether the industry can actually make money–and thus grow–by giving software away for free. How this plays out in the years ahead could determine whether robotics becomes a thriving industry of many companies or remains firmly rooted in research.

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