Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

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Ubuntu Edge: Making Things Even Harder for Open Hardware?

The idea of a smartphone supportive of Free Software, using hardware that can be supported using Free Software, goes back a few years. Although the Openmoko Neo 1973 attracted much attention back in 2007, not only for its friendliness to Free Software but also for the openness around its hardware design, the Trolltech Greenphone had delivered, almost a full year before the Neo, a hardware platform that ran mostly Free Software and was ultimately completely supported using entirely Free Software (something that had been a matter of some earlier dispute). Unfortunately, both of these devices were discontinued fairly quickly: the Greenphone was more a vehicle to attract interest in the Qt-based Qtopia environment amongst developers, existing handset manufacturers and operators, and although the Neo 1973 was superseded by the Neo FreeRunner, the commercial partner of the endeavour eventually chose to abandon development of the platform and further products of this nature. (Openmoko now sells a product called WikiReader, which is an intriguing concept in itself, principally designed as an offline reader for Wikipedia.)

What survived the withdrawal of Openmoko from the pursuit of the Free Software smartphone was the community or communities around such work, having taken an active interest in developing software for such devices and having seen the merits of being able to influence the design of such devices through the principles of open hardware. Some efforts were made to continue the legacy: the GTA04 project develops and offers replacement hardware for the FreeRunner (known as GTA02 within the Openmoko project) using updated and additional components; a previous “gta02-core” effort attempted to refine the development process and specification of a successor to the FreeRunner but did not appear to produce any concrete devices; a GTA03 project which appeared to be a more participative continuation of the previous work, inviting the wider community into the design process alongside those who had done the work for the previous generations of Neo devices, never really took off other than to initiate the gta02-core effort, perhaps indicating that as the commercial sponsor’s interest started to vanish, the community was somewhat unreasonably expected to provide the expertise withdrawn by the sponsor (which included a lot of the hardware design and manufacturing expertise) as well as its own. Nevertheless, there is a degree of continuity throughout the false starts of GTA03 and gta02-core through to GTA04 and its own successes and difficulties today.

Then and Now

A lot has happened in the open hardware world since 2007. Platforms like Arduino have become very popular amongst electronics enthusiasts, encouraging the development of derivatives, clones, accessories and an entire marketplace around experimentation, prototyping and even product development. Other long-established microcontroller-based solution vendors have presumably benefited from the level of interest shown towards Arduino and other “-duino” products, too, even if those solutions do not give customers the right to copy and modify the hardware as Arduino does with its hardware licensing. Access to widely used components such as LCD panels has broadened substantially with plenty of reasonably priced products available that can be fairly easily connected to devices like the Arduino, BeagleBoard, Raspberry Pi and many others. Even once-exotic display technologies like e-paper are becoming accessible to individuals in the form of ready-to-use boards that just plug into popular experimenter platforms.

Meanwhile, more sophisticated parts of the open hardware world have seen their own communities develop in various ways. One community emerging from the Openmoko endeavour was Qi-Hardware, supported by Sharism who acquired the rights to produce the Ben NanoNote from the vendor of an existing product, thus delivering a device with completely documented electronics hardware, every aspect of which can be driven by Free Software. Unfortunately, efforts to iterate on the concept stalled after attempts to make improved revisions of the Ben, presumably in preparation to deliver future versions of the NanoNote concept. Another project founded under the Qi-Hardware umbrella has been extending the notion of “copyleft hardware” to system on a chip (SoC) solutions and delivering the Milkymist platform in the shape of the Milkymist One video synthesizer. Having dealt with commercially available but proprietary SoC solutions, such as the SoC used in the Ben NanoNote, there appears to be a desire amongst some to break free of the dependency on silicon vendors and their often poorly documented products and to take control not only of the hardware using Free Software tools, but also to decide how the very hardware platform itself is designed and built.

There are plenty of other hardware development initiatives taking place – OpenPandora, the EOMA-68 initiative, the Vivaldi KDE tablet (which is now going to be based on EOMA-68 hardware), the Novena open laptop – many of which have gained plenty of experience – sometimes very hard-earned experience – in getting hardware designed and produced. Indeed, the history of the Vivaldi initiative seems to provide a good illustration of how lessons that others have already learned are continuing to be learned independently: having negotiated manufacturing whilst suffering GPL-violating industry practices, the manufacturer changed the specification and rendered a lot of the existing work useless (presumably the part supporting the hardware with Free Software drivers).

In short, if you are considering designing a device “to run Linux”, the chances are that someone else is already doing just that. When people suggest that you look at various other projects or initiatives, they are not doing so to inflate the reputation of those projects: it is most likely the case that people associated with those projects can give you advice that will save you time and effort, even if there is no further collaboration to be had beyond exchanges of useful information.

The Competition for Attention

Ubuntu Edge – the recently announced, crowd-funded “dockable” smartphone – emerges at a time when there are already many existing open hardware projects in need of funding. Those who might consider supporting such worthy efforts may be able to afford supporting more than one of them, but they may find it difficult to justify doing so. Precious few details exist of the hardware featured in the Ubuntu Edge product, and it would be reasonable to suspect given the emphasis on specifications and features that it will not be open hardware. Moreover, given the tendency of companies wishing to enter the smartphone market to do so as conveniently as possible by adopting the “chipset of the month”, combined with the scarcity of silicon favouring true Free Software support, we might also suspect that the nature of the software support will be less than what we should be demanding: the ability to modify and maintain the software in order to use the hardware indefinitely and independently of the vendor.

Meanwhile, other worthy projects beyond the open hardware realm compete for the money of potential sponsors and donors. The Fairphone initiative has also invited people to pledge money towards the delivery of devices, although in a more tangible fashion than Ubuntu Edge, with genuine plans having been made for raw materials sourcing and device manufacture, and with software development supposedly undertaken on behalf of the project. As I noted previously, there are some unfortunate shortcomings with the Fairphone initiative around the openness of the software, and unless the participants are able to change the mindset of the chipset vendor and the suppliers of various technologies incorporated into the chipset, sustainable Free Software support may end up being dependent on reverse-engineering efforts. Mozilla’s Firefox OS, meanwhile, certainly emphasises a Free Software stack along with free and open standards, but the status of the software support for certain hardware functions are likely to be dependent on the details of the actual devices themselves.

Interest in open phones is not new, nor even is interest in “dockable” smartphones, and there are plenty of efforts to build elements of both while upholding Free Software support and even the principles of open hardware. Meanwhile, the Ubuntu Edge campaign provides no specifics about the details of the hardware; it is thus unable to make any commitment about Free Software drivers or binary firmware “blobs”. Maybe the intention is to one day provide things like board layouts and case designs as resources for further use and refinement by the open hardware community, but the recent track-record of Canonical and Ubuntu with secretive and divisive – or at least not particularly transparent or cooperative – product development suggests that this may be too much to hope.

Giving the Gift

$32 million is a lot of money. Broken into $600 chunks with the reward of the advertised device, or a consolation prize of your money back minus a few percent in fees and charges if the fund-raising campaign fails to reach its target, it is a lot of money for an individual, too. (There is also the worst-case eventuality that the target is met but the product is not delivered, at which point everybody might have found that they have merely made a donation towards a nice but eventually unrealisable or undeliverable idea.) One could do quite a bit of good work with even small multiples of $600, and with as much as around 0.5% of the Ubuntu Edge campaign target, one could fund something like the GCW Zero. That might not aggressively push back the limits of mobile technology on every front, but it gives people something different and valuable to them while still leaving plenty of money floating around looking for a good cause.

But it is not merely about the money, even though many of those putting down money for the Ubuntu Edge are likely to have ruled out doing the same for the Fairphone (and perhaps some of those who have ordered their Fairphone regret placing their order now that the Ubuntu Edge has made its appearance), purely because they neither need nor can reasonably afford or justify buying two new smartphones for delivery at some point in the future. The other gift that could be given is collaboration and assistance to the many projects already out there toiling to put Linux on some SoC or other, developing an open hardware design for others to use and improve, and deepening community expertise that might make these challenges more tolerable in the future.

Who knows how the Ubuntu Edge will be developed if or when the funding target is reached, or regardless of it being reached? But imagine what it would be like if such generosity could be directed towards existing work and if existing and new projects were able to work more closely with each other; if the expertise in different projects could be brought in to make some new endeavour more likely to succeed and less fraught with problems; if communities were included, encouraged to participate, and encouraged to take their own work further to enrich their own project and improve any future collaborations.

Investing, not Purchasing

$32 million is a lot of money. Less exciting things (to the average gadget buyer) like the OpenRISC funding drive to produce an ASIC version of an open hardware SoC wanted only $250000 – still a lot of money, but less than 1% of the Ubuntu Edge campaign target – and despite the potential benefits for both individuals and businesses it still fell far short of the mark, but if such projects were funded they might open up opportunities that do not exist now and would probably still not exist if Ubuntu got their product funded. And there are plenty of other examples where donations are more like investments in a sustainable future instead of one-off purchases of nice-looking gadgets.

Those thinking about making a Free Software phone might want to check in with the GTA04 project to see if there is anything they can learn or help out with. Similarly, that project could perhaps benefit from evaluating the EOMA-68 initiative which in turn could consider supporting genuinely open SoCs (and also removing the uncertainty about patent assertion for participants in the initiative by providing transparent governance mechanisms and not relying on the transient goodwill of the current custodians). As expertise is shared and collaboration increases, the money might start to be spread around a bit more as well, and cash-starved projects might be able to do things before those things become less interesting or even irrelevant because the market has moved on.

We have to invest both financially and collaboratively in the good work already taking place. To not do so means that opportunities that are almost within our grasp are not seized, and that people who have worked hard to offer us such opportunities are let down. We might lose the valuable expertise of such people through pure disillusionment, and yet the casual observer might still wonder when we might see the first fully open, Free Software friendly, mass-market-ready smartphone, thinking it is simply beyond “the community” to deliver. In fact, we might be letting the opportunity to deliver such things pass us by more often than we realise, purely out of ignorance of the ongoing endeavours of the community.

Diversions and Distractions

Ubuntu Edge sounds exciting. It is just a shame that it does not appear to enable and encourage everyone who has already been working to realise such ambitions on substantially lower budgets and with less of a brand reputation to cultivate the interest of the technology media and enthusiastic consumers. Millions of dollars of committed funds and an audience preferring to take the passive position of expectant customers, as opposed to becoming active contributors to existing efforts, all adds up to a diversion of participation and resources from open hardware projects.

Such blockbuster campaigns may even distract from open hardware projects because for those who might need slight persuasion to get involved, the apparition of an easy solution demanding only some spare cash and no intellectual investment may provide the discouragement necessary to affirm that as with so many other matters, somebody else has got them covered. Consequently, such people retreat from what might have been a rewarding pursuit that deepens their understanding of technology and the issues around it.

Not everyone has the time or inclination to get involved with open hardware, of course, especially if they are starting with practically no knowledge of the field. But with many people and their green pieces of paper parked and waiting for Ubuntu Edge, it is certainly possible to think that the campaign might make things even harder for the open hardware movement to get the recognition and the traction it deserves.

2 Responses to “Ubuntu Edge: Making Things Even Harder for Open Hardware?”

  1. Christoph Says:

    Excellent summary and comments, thanks Paul !

  2. Paul Boddie Says:

    Thank you Christoph! I see that John Sullivan of the FSF has raised the Free Software issue both on Jono Bacon’s blog…

    …and previously on the FSF site itself:

    It doesn’t look like Free Software (going as far as Free drivers or even Free firmware) is a priority, let alone open hardware. Too bad!