Whither open hardware ? (was Re: Quick e-mail poll: Still using your Freerunner?)

Werner Almesberger werner at openmoko.org
Sun Jan 3 15:47:27 CET 2010

Ken Young wrote:
> My two cents:   If I were dictator of the gta02-core team (instead of
> someone who doesn't even contribute), I would repurpose the device as a
> GPS PDA.   I would remove all the radio components except for the WiFi,
> and try to optimize for the longest battery life possible.

Companies who were looking for a device for some project often asked
Openmoko Inc. if they could have a GTA02 with some features removed
or with other - often small - changes. Unfortunately, Openmoko Inc.
did not have the resources for making such derivatives.

However, this is a promise the approach chosen for gta02-core holds:
with the whole design out in the open (Open Design Hardware [1]),
anyone can independently define, implement, and produce derivatives.

[1] http://people.openmoko.org/werner/openness/odhwdr-v1.pdf

This doesn't mean that everyone is forced to fight all alone. To the
contrary, there are many possible synergies along the way that are
not visible as such in the traditional product development process,
such as shared sourcing or shared manufacturing.

For example, if you want to make your GPS PDA, you may choose a set
of changes that fits your budget, e.g., by staying with the overall
platform and physical shape but removing subsystems you don't need.

When it then comes to sourcing components and manufacturing, the
same facilities used for making the phone could offer their services
also to your project. The incremental cost for them would be very
small, much smaller than running a completely different product of
similar complexity.

Also the "core company" (or whatever form of organization) in charge
of the base design would benefit. If it has spare engineering
resources to put into derivative projects, it can choose to do so,
favouring projects that best suit its agenda.

If not, others can help out. Thus, the business opportunity is not
wasted - it only goes to someone else you could think of as an ally.
Even better, resources that can be shared contribute back to the
whole ensemble of projects. E.g., if your PDA is wildly successful,
sourcing may be able to get much getter conditions for parts than
they did with just the phone. Or a new type of subsystem gets
researched and is then available as a possible building block for
the entire architectural family. Thus also the phone benefits.

Now some may say that this is crazy and that anyone handing out
designs so liberally would be robbed by competitors. In my
experience, it's surprisingly hard to get people to "steal" your
cool new ideas. Eventually, the thieves and parasites will show up,
but you have to be successful for an awfully long time before they
even notice you.

> [...] but rather to point out that there
> is really no hope at that a group of people such as the gta02-core team,
> working part time with no large corporate sponsor, will ever produce a
> product with hardware on a par with what the big players are
> contemporaneously offering.

I agree on the point that there's no hope to mass-produce a phone
without suitable resources. The resources don't have to be in one
hand (e.g., you could have a consortium of entities each
contributing their own capabilities and splitting the proceeds),
but they have to be available.

However, I don't think it's necessary to compete on leading edge
technology. Often enough, less advanced components will yield an
equally satisfying product. Besides, companies that don't have the
sexiest product in their sector of the market are often much
friendlier towards openness than those who do.

Please don't take the poor performance of GTA01 or GTA02 as too much
of an indicator of what "second best" can do. Both are based on very
conservative designs (e.g., no DDR) and GTA02 has two thirds of its
high-throughput peripherals share an incredibly slow bus.

(Think of a first-generation PCI-based PC where someone chooses to
use ISA cards for video and the SCSI controller. Would such a system
properly represent the typical performance of the PCI architecture ?)

The 2442 is now about five years old, and it shows all over the
place. In an updated but similar design, unlike gta02-core suitable
for mass-production, I would use something like the 2450, which has
high-speed USB, 2D acceleration, and other goodies.

> In contrast, I think there still might be an unexploited niche in the
> GPS-PDA arena.

I think there is a whole universe full of unexplored niches. It's
hidden from us by a tall wall called "high cost of entry". If we can
find ways to lower that wall, a lot of interesting things should

- Werner

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