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Archive for the ‘Neo900’ Category

Testing Times for Free Software and Open Hardware

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

The last few months haven’t been too kind on Free Software and open hardware initiatives in a number of ways. Here, in a shorter form than one might usually expect from me, are some problematic developments on topics that I may have covered in the past year.

Software Freedom Undervalued

About a couple of months ago, the Software Freedom Conservancy started a fund-raising campaign after it became apparent that companies could not be relied upon to support the organisation’s activities. Since the start of the campaign, many individuals have stepped up and pledged financial support of their own, which is very generous of them, as is the support of enlightened organisations that have offered to match individual contributions.

Sadly, such generosity seems not to be shared by many of the largest companies making money from Free Software and from Linux in particular, and thus from the non-financial contributions that make projects like Linux viable in the first place, with many of those even coming from those same generous individuals who have supported the Conservancy financially. And let us consider for a moment why one prominent umbrella organisation’s members might not want to enforce the GPL, especially given that some of them have been successfully prosecuted for violating that licence, in relation to various Free Software projects, in the past.

The Proprietary Instincts of the BBC

The BBC Micro Bit was a topic covered in the last year, when I indicated a degree of caution about the mistakes of the past being repeated needlessly. And indeed, for some time, everything was being done behind the curtain of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), meaning that very little information was being made available about the device and accompanying materials, and thus very little could be done by the average member of the public to prepare for the availability of the device, let alone develop their own materials, software, accessories or anything else for it.

Since then, a degree of secrecy has been eliminated, and efforts have been made to get the embedded variant of Python known as Micropython working on the board. However, certain parts of that work still appear to be encumbered by NDA, arguably making the effort of developing Python-related materials something of a social networking exercise. Meanwhile, notorious industry monopolist, Microsoft, somehow managed to muscle in on the initiative and take control of the principally-supported method of developing software with the device. I guess people at the BBC and their friends in politics and business don’t always learn from the mistakes of the past, particularly as they spend other people’s money.

The Walled Garden Party’s Hangover for Free Software Development

Just over twelve months ago, I made some observations about the Python core development group’s attraction to GitHub. It seems that the infatuation with the enthusiastic masses and their inevitable unleashing on Python assets, with the expectation of stimulating an exponential upturn in development activity, will now be gratified through a migration of various Python infrastructure components to the proprietary and centralised service that GitHub offers. (I have my doubts as to whether CPython contribution barriers are really the cause of Python’s current malaise, despite the usual clamour for Git and the associated “network effects” amongst a community of self-proclaimed version control wizards whose powers somehow don’t extend to mastering simple workflows with other tools.)

Anatoly Techtonik makes some interesting points, which will presumably go unheard because those involved have all decided not to listen to him any more. One of the more disturbing ones is that the “comparison shopping” mentality, where Free Software developers abandon their colleagues writing various tools and systems in favour of random corporations offering proprietary stuff at no cost, may well result in the Free Software solutions in such areas becoming seen as uncompetitive and unattractive. What those making such foolish decisions fail to realise is that their own projects can easily get the same treatment, if nobody bothers to see beyond the end of their own nose.

The result of all this is less funding and fewer resources for Free Software projects, with potentially fewer contributions, too, as the attraction of supporting “losing” solutions starts to fade. Community-oriented Free Software is arguably grossly underfunded as it is: we don’t really need other Free Software developers abandoning or undermining their colleagues while ridiculing those colleagues’ “ideological purity“. And, of course, volunteer effort will undoubtedly be burned up in the needless migration to the proprietary solution, setting everyone up for another costly transition down the road, which experience indicates is always more work than anyone anticipated (if they even bothered to think ahead at all).

PayPal: Doesn’t Pay, Not Your Pal

It has been a long time since I wrote about the Neo900 project. Things were looking promising: necessary components had been secured, and everyone was just waiting for Nikolaus to finish his work with the Pyra handheld console. And then we learned that PayPal had decided to hold a significant amount of money as a form of “security”, thus cutting off a vital source of funds for actually doing the work. Apparently, PayPal have a habit of doing this kind of thing, on one reported occasion even taking the opportunity to then offer loans to those people they deliberately put in such a difficult position.

If you supported the Neo900 project and pledged funds via PayPal, you need to tell PayPal to actually pay the project. You know: like the verb in their company name. Otherwise, in the worst case, you may not only not get a Neo900 and not see it developed to completion, but you will also have loaned your money to a large corporation for a substantial period and earned no interest on that involuntary loan, perhaps even incurring fees for the privilege. (So, please see the “How to fix it” section of the relevant article.)

Maybe in 2016, people will become a lot clearer about who their real friends are. Let us hope so!

EOMA-68: The Return

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

It is hard to believe that almost two years have passed since I criticised the Ubuntu Edge crowd-funding campaign for being a distraction from true open hardware initiatives (becoming one which also failed to reach its funding target, but was presumably good advertising for Ubuntu’s mobile efforts for a short while). Since then, the custodians of Ubuntu have pressed on with their publicity stunts, the most recent of which involving limited initial availability of an Ubuntu-branded smartphone that may very well have been shipping without the corresponding source code for the GPL-licensed software being available, even though it is now claimed that this issue has been remedied. Given the problems with the same chipset vendor in other products, I personally cannot help feeling that the matter might need more investigation, but then again, I personally do not have time to chase up licence compliance in other people’s products, either.

Meanwhile, some genuine open hardware initiatives were mentioned in that critique of Ubuntu’s mobile strategy: GTA04 is the continuing effort to produce a smartphone that continues the legacy of the Openmoko Neo FreeRunner, whose experiences are now helping to produce the Neo900 evolution of the Nokia N900 smartphone; Novena is an open hardware laptop that was eventually successfully crowd-funded and is in the process of shipping to backers; OpenPandora is a handheld games console, the experiences from which have since been harnessed to initiate the DragonBox Pyra product with a very similar physical profile and target audience. There is a degree of collaboration and continuity within some of these projects, too: the instigator of the GTA04 project is assisting with the Neo900 and the Pyra, for example, partly because these projects use largely the same hardware platform. And, of course, GNU/Linux is the foundation of the software for all this hardware.

But in general, open hardware projects remain fairly isolated entities, perhaps only clustering into groups around particular chipsets or hardware platforms. And when it comes to developing a physical device, the amount of re-use and sharing between projects is perhaps less than we might have come to expect from software, particularly Free Software. Not that this has necessarily slowed the deluge of boards, devices, products and crowd-funding campaigns: everywhere you look, there’s a new Arduino variant or something claiming to be the next big thing in the realm of the “Internet of Things” (IoT), but after a while one gets the impression that it is the same thing being funded and sold, over and over again, with the audience probably not realising that it has all mostly been done before.

The Case for Modularity

Against this backdrop, there is one interesting and somewhat unusual initiative that I have only briefly mentioned before: the development of the EOMA-68 (Embedded Open Modular Architecture 68) standard along with products to demonstrate it. Unlike the average single-board computer or system-on-module board, EOMA-68 attempts to define a widely-used modular computing unit which is also a complete computing device, delegating input (keyboards, mice, storage) and output (displays) to other devices. It has often been repeated that today phones are just general-purpose computers that happen to be able to make calls, and the same can be said for a lot of consumer electronics equipment that traditionally were either much simpler devices or which only employed special-purpose computing units to perform their work: televisions are a reasonably illustrative example of this.

And of course, computers as we know them come in all shapes and sizes now: phones, media players, handhelds, tablets, netbooks, laptops, desktops, workstations, and so on. But most of these devices are not built to be upgraded when the core computing part of them becomes obsolete or, at the very least, less attractive than the computing features of newer devices, nor can the purchaser mix and match the computing part of one device with the potentially more attractive parts of another: one kind of smart television may have a much better screen but a poorer user interface that one would want to replace, for example. There are workarounds – some people use USB-based “plug computers” to give their televisions “smart” capabilities – but when you buy a device, you typically have to settle for the bundled software and computing hardware (even if the software might eventually be modifiable thanks to the role of the GPL, subject to constraints imposed by manufacturers that might prevent modification).

With a modular computing unit, the element of choice is obviously enhanced, but it also helps those developing open hardware. First of all, the interface to the computing unit is well-defined, meaning that the designers of a device need not be overly concerned with the way the general-purpose computing functionality is to be provided beyond the physical demands of that particular module and the facilities provided by it. Beyond such constraints, being able to rely on a tested functional element, designers can focus on the elements of their device that differentiate it from other devices without having to master the integration of their own components of interest with those required for the computing functionality in one “make or break” hardware design that might prove too demanding to get right first time (or even second or third time). Prototyping complicated circuit designs can quickly incur considerable costs, and eliminating complexity from what might be described as the “peripheral board” – the part providing the input and output capabilities and the character of a particular device – not only reduces the risk of getting things wrong, but it could make the production of that board cheaper, too. And that might open up device design to a broader group of participants.

As Nico Rikken explains, EOMA-68 promises to offer benefits for hardware designers, software developers and customers. Modularity does make sense if properly considered, which is perhaps why other modularity initiatives like Phonebloks have plenty of critics even though they share the same worthy objectives of reducing waste and avoiding device obsolescence: with vague statements about modularity and the hint of everything being interchangeable and interoperating with everything, one cannot help be skeptical about the potential complexity and interoperability problems that could result, not to mention the ergonomic issues that most people can easily relate to. By focusing on the general-purpose computing aspect of modularity, EOMA-68 addresses the most important part of the hardware for Free Software and delegates modularity elsewhere in the system to other initiatives that do not claim to do it all.

A Few False Starts

Unfortunately, not everything has gone precisely according to schedule with EOMA-68 so far. After originally surfacing as part of an initiative to make a competitive ARM-based netbook, the plan was to make computing modules and “engineering boards” on the way to delivering a complete product, and the progress of the first module can be followed on the Allwinner A10 news page on the Rhombus Tech Web site. From initial interest from various parties at the start of 2012, and through a considerable amount of activity, by May 2013, working A10 boards were demonstrated running Debian Wheezy. And a follow-up board employing the Allwinner A20 instead of the A10 was demonstrated running Debian at the end of October 2014 as part of a micro-desktop solution.

One might have thought that these devices would be more widely available by now, particularly as development began in 2012 on a tablet board to complement the computing modules, with apparently steady progress being made. Now, the development of this tablet was driven by the opportunity to collaborate with the Vivaldi tablet project, whose own product had been rendered unusable for Free Software usage by the usual product iteration performed behind the scenes by the contract manufacturer changing the components in use without notice (as is often experienced by those buying computers to run Free Software operating systems, only to discover that the wireless chipset, say, is no longer one that is supported by Free Software). With this increased collaboration with KDE-driven hardware initiatives (Improv and Vivaldi), efforts seemingly became directed towards satisfying potential customers within the framework of those other initiatives, so that to acquire the micro-engineering board one would seek to purchase an Improv board instead, and to obtain a complete tablet product one would place an advance order for the Vivaldi tablet instead of anything previously under development.

Somehow during 2014, the collaboration between the participants in this broader initiative appears to have broken down, with there undoubtedly being different perspectives on the sequence of events that led to the cancellation of Improv and Vivaldi. Trawling the mailing list archives gives more detail but not much more clarity, and it can perhaps only be said that mistakes may have been made and that everybody learned new things about certain aspects of doing business with other people. The effect, especially in light of the deluge of new and shiny products for casual observers to purchase instead of engaging in this community, and with many people presumably being told that their Vivaldi tablet would not be shipping after all, probably meant that many people lost interest and, indeed, hope that there would be anything worth holding out for.

The Show Goes On

One might have thought that such a setback would have brought about the end of the initiative, but its instigator shows no sign of quitting, probably because genuine hardware has been made, and other opportunities and collaborations have been created on the way. Initially, the focus was on an ARM-based netbook or tablet that would run Free Software without the vendor neglecting to provide the complete corresponding source for things like the Linux kernel and bootloader required to operate the device. This requirement for licence compliance has not disappeared or diminished, with continuing scrutiny placed on vendors to make sure that they are not just throwing binaries over the wall.

But as experience was gained in evaluating suitable CPUs, it was not only ARM CPUs that were found to have the necessary support characteristics for software freedom as well as for low power consumption. The Ingenic jz4775, a sibling of the rather less capable jz4720 used by the Ben NanoNote, uses the MIPS architecture and may well be fully supported by the mainline Linux kernel in the near future; the ICubeCorp IC1T is a more exotic CPU that can be supported by Free Software toolchains and should be able to run the Linux kernel in addition to Android. Alongside these, the A20 remains the most suitable of the options from Allwinner, whose products have always been competitively priced (which has also been a consideration), but there are other ARM derivatives that would be more interesting from a vendor cooperation perspective, notably the TI AM389x series of CPUs.

Meanwhile, after years of questions about whether a crowd-funding campaign would be started to attract customers and to get the different pieces of hardware built in quantity, plans for such a campaign are now underway. While initial calls for a campaign may have been premature, I now think that the time is right: people have been using the hardware already produced for some time, and considerable experience has been amassed along the way up to this point; the risks should be substantially lower than quite a few other crowd-funding campaigns that seem to be approved and funded these days. Not that anyone should seek to conceal the nature of crowd-funding and the in-built element of risk associated with such campaigns, of course: it is not the same as buying a product from a store.

Nevertheless, I would be very interested to see this hardware being made, and I am even on record as having said so. Part of this is selfishness: I could do with some newer, quieter, less power-consuming hardware. But I also think that a choice of different computing modules, supporting Free Software operating systems out of the box, with some of them candidates for FSF endorsement, and offering a diversity of architectures, would be beneficial to a sustainable computing infrastructure in the longer term. If you also think so, maybe you should follow the progress of EOMA-68 over the coming weeks and months, too.

Neo900: Turning the corner

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

Back when I last wrote about the status of the Neo900 initiative, the fundraising had just begun and the target was a relatively modest €25000 by “crowdfunding” standards. That target was soon reached, but it was only ever the initial target: the sum of money required to prototype the device and to demonstrate that the device really could be made and could eventually be sold to interested customers. Thus, to communicate the further objectives of the project, the Neo900 site updated their funding status bar to show further funding objectives that go beyond mere demonstrations of feasibility and that also cover different levels of production.

So what happened here? Well, one of the slightly confusing things was that even though people were donating towards the project’s goals, it was not really possible to consider all of them as potential customers, so if 200 people had donated something (anything from, say, €10 right up to €5000), one could not really rely on them all coming back later to buy a finished device. People committing €100 or more might be considered as a likely purchaser, especially since donations of that size are effectively treated as pledges to buy and qualify for a rebate on a finished device, but people donating less might just be doing so to support the project. Indeed, people donating €100 or more might also only be doing so to support the project, but it is probably reasonable to expect that the more people have given, the more likely they are to want to buy something in the end. And, of course, if someone donates the entire likely cost of a device, a purchase has effectively been made already.

So even though the initiative was able to gauge a certain level of interest, it was not able to do so precisely purely by considering the amount of financial support it had been receiving. Consequently, by measuring donations of €100 or more, a more realistic impression of the scale of eventual production could be obtained. As most people are aware, producing things in sufficient quantity may be the only way that a product can get made: setup costs, minimum orders of components, and other factors mean that small runs of production are prohibitively expensive. With 200 effective pledges to buy, the initiative can move beyond the prototyping phase and at least consider the production phase – when they are ready, of course – without worrying too much that there will be a lack of customers.

Since my last report, media coverage has even extended into the technology mainstream, with Wired even doing a news article about it. Meanwhile, the project itself demonstrated mechanically compatible hardware and the modem hardware they intend to use, also summarising component availability and potential problems with the sourcing of certain components. For the most part, things are looking good indeed, with perhaps the only cloud on the horizon being a component with a 1000-unit minimum order quantity. That is why the project will not be stopping with 200 potential customers: the more people that jump on board, the greater the chances that everyone will be able to get a better configuration for the device.

If this were a mainstream “crowdfunding” effort, they might call that a “stretch goal”, but it is really a consequence of the way manufacturing is done these days, giving us economies of scale on the one hand, but raising the threshold for new entrants and independent efforts on the other. Perhaps we will eventually see innovations in small-scale manufacturing, not just in the widely-hyped 3D printing field, but for everything from electronic circuits to screens and cases, that may help eliminate some of the huge fixed costs and make it possible to design and make complicated devices relatively cheaply.

It will certainly be interesting to see how many more people choose to extend the lifespan of their N900 by signing up, or how many embrace the kind of smartphone that the “fickle market” supposedly does not want any more. Maybe as more people join in, more will be encouraged to join in as well, and so some kind of snowball effect might occur. Certainly, with the transparency shown in the project so far, people will at least be able to make an informed decision about whether they join in or not. And hopefully, we will eventually see some satisfied customers with open hardware running Free Software, good to go for another few years, emphasizing once again that the combination is an essential ingredient in a sustainable technological society.

Neo900: And they’re off!

Friday, November 1st, 2013

Having mentioned the Neo900 smartphone initiative previously, it seems pertinent to note that it has moved beyond the discussion phase and into the fundraising phase. Compared to the Ubuntu Edge, the goals are fairly modest – 25000 euros versus tens of millions of dollars – but the way this money will be spent has been explained in somewhat more detail than appeared to be the case for the Ubuntu Edge. Indeed, the Neo900 initiative has released a feasibility study document describing the challenges confronting the project: it contains a lot more detail than the typical “we might experience some setbacks” disclaimer on the average Kickstarter campaign page.

It’s also worth noting that as the Neo900 inherits a lot from the GTA04, as the title of the feasibility study document indicates when it refers to the device as the “GTA04b7″, and as the work is likely to be done largely within the auspices of the existing GTA04 endeavour, the fundraising is being done by Golden Delicious (the originators of the GTA04) themselves. From reading the preceding discussion around the project, popular fundraising sites appear to have conditions or restrictions that did not appeal to the project participants: Kickstarter has geographical limitations (coincidentally involving the signatory nations of the increasingly notorious UKUSA Agreement), and most fundraising sites also take a share of the raised funds. Such trade-offs may make sense for campaigns wanting to reach a large audience (and who know how to promote themselves to get prominence on such sites), but if you know who your audience is and how to reach them, and if you already have a functioning business, it could make sense to cut the big campaign sites out of the loop.

It will certainly be interesting to see what happens next. An Openmoko successor coming to the rescue of a product made by the mobile industry’s previously most dominant force: that probably isn’t what some people expected, either at Openmoko or at that once-dominant vendor.

Neo900: Combining Communities to Create Opportunities

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Ever since the withdrawal of Openmoko from open smartphone development, it appears to have been challenging to find large numbers of people who might be interested in supporting similar open hardware efforts, either by having them put down money to fund the development and production of devices, or by encouraging them to develop Free Software to run on the hardware produced by those efforts. That anyone can go and buy an Android phone and tell themselves that it is just like that dream they once had of running Linux on a phone (if they turn the lights down low enough and ignore the technical and ethical limitations) serves as just enough of a distraction to keep people merely curious about things like Openmoko and open hardware, persuading them to hold off supporting such things until everybody else has jumped on board and already made it a safe choice. It almost goes without saying that where risk-takers are needed to make something happen, that thing is not going to happen if everybody looks to everybody else to take the risk. (And even when people do take the risk, they seem to think that their pledges and donations are as good as money in the bank, but that is another story.)

Naturally, the Ubuntu Edge campaign showed that some money is floating around and can be attracted to suitably exciting projects. Unfortunately, one may be tempted to conclude that anything more mundane than a next generation product – one that can only be delivered at some point in the future, once it becomes feasible and economic to manufacture and sell something with “out of this world” specifications – is unlikely to attract the interest of potential customers with money to pledge towards something. Such potential customers surely want something their money cannot already buy, and offering only things like openness and freedom as enhancements to today’s specifications is perhaps not exciting enough for some of those people.

It is therefore rather refreshing that two communities have recently become more aware of the possibilities offered by, and available to, open hardware: the OpenPhoenux community with their ongoing GTA04 project to follow on from the work of Openmoko, and the Maemo community seeking a sustainable future beyond the now-discontinued Nokia N900 smartphone. Despite heroic efforts to sustain the GTA04 project, outside interest has apparently been low enough that additional production has been placed on hold: a minimum number of orders needs to exist before any kind of further manufacturing can take place. Meanwhile, a community of people whose devices may one day fail to function or perhaps no longer function already, forcing them to seek replacements in the second-hand market with all the usual online auction profiteering and the purchasing uncertainties that go along with it, have been made aware of an active hardware project whose foundations largely resemble those of the devices they wish to sustain.

So, unlike Ubuntu Edge, the Neo900 initiative is not offering next year’s hardware. In fact, it is not even offering this year’s hardware. But what it does offer is a sustainable path into the future for those who like the form factor and software provided by the N900: people who were having to come to terms with buying a device that would not be as satisfactory as the one they already have, merely because the device they already have has reached the end of its usable life, and because the mobile device industry has a different idea of progress from the one they happen to have. In effect, the Neo900 is about taking control, owning the roadmap, deciding when or whether the fads and fashions of the industry at large will serve them better, and being able to choose or to reject the wider industry’s offerings on a more reasonable timescale.

The N900, as a product abandoned some time ago by Nokia as it retreated into being a vassal state of the Microsoft empire, gets an opportunity to rise from the ashes of the ruin wrought by the establishment of that corporate relationship. At a time where Nokia sees its core business incorporated into Microsoft itself in the final chapter of what has to be one of the most widely predicted and reported acts of alleged corporate looting in recent years, and where former Nokia executives announce plans to re-establish the business independently by attracting neglected Nokia talent, the open phoenix in the form of OpenPhoenux may help the N900 to rise above its troubled past and to shine once again as its former custodians struggle with the mayhem of corporate integration or corporate reconstruction, depending on where they end up.

People might wonder why anyone would want more of the same rather than something new, different, exciting, shiny. The fact is that away from the noise of exhibition floor, trade show and developer conference demonstrations, most people just want something that works and, preferably, something they already know. Their life goes on and does not wait for them to have to learn the latest gestures and moves to make some new gadget do what their old gadget was doing before it broke down. Some people – those with an N900 or those who wanted one – now have a new opportunity available to them, thanks to open hardware and the Neo900 initiative. For the rest of us, it offers more choice and maybe some hope that open hardware will be able to cater to more people in times to come.