Ventures in Open Hardware

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jan 11, 2017 GMT
Bruce Byfield

For over a year now, I have been watching the efforts to develop open hardware. I have been especially interested in the combination of open hardware and crowdfunding. Not only are the lists of open hardware campaigns like an adult version of a toy catalog, but the combination helps small businesses and is becoming a source of new businesses as well. Sadly, though, in my own experience, the resulting products have left a little to be desired.

The Pi-Top Laptop

The first open hardware project I backed was Pi-Top. Its product was a do-it-yourself laptop running on a Raspberry Pi. I reviewed the Pi-Top enthusiastically -- to the point that I worried if I could discuss it impartially, but, about a month after I wrote several articles about it, the problems started to show.

To start with, the touchpad was on the right of the base, making it inconvenient for a left-hander like me. In addition, the keyboard cable was so poorly positioned that carrying the laptop upright made it slip loose. The fact that the laptop could be disassembled quickly to reconnect the cable did little to compensate for the inconvenience.

Worst of all, the Pi-Top company proved long on promises and slow on fulfillment. As far as I can see, it never did release the 3D printing schematics that had been mentioned repeatedly in its initial campaign. More seriously, when the battery proved unreliable, the company took three months to release a unreliable patch. If the patch didn't work, users were advised to keep applying it until it worked. Personally, I gave up after a dozen efforts, but, a year later, users are still complaining about the problem on the company forums.

The end came to me eight months after I bought. Before I was aware of the problems, I had backed a second campaign for the Pi-Top CEED, an inexpensive computer being sold mainly to schools. For seven weeks, my tracking information indicated it had been shipped, which was enough time for it to circle the globe three or four times.

Tired of these antics, I asked for a refund -- which, to be fair, I received in a couple of business days. But by then, I suspect, the company had plenty of experience in issuing refunds.

The Ubuntu Tablet
For years, I have been waiting for a free software tablet. When Vivaldi, Aaron Seigo's effort at one, collapsed, I was as disappointed as only two years of waiting could make me. So, when Ubuntu announced a tablet -- BQ's Aquaris M10 -- I immediately reserved one.

True, the Aquaris M10 had proprietary firmware, making it a major step downwards from the plans for Vivaldi. But at least Ubuntu had delivered, and I figured almost-free was better than completely proprietary.

Personally, I found a lot to appreciate. The Ubuntu Touch interface, with its swipes from all four edges, remains one of the few desktops for portable devices that is actually efficient. I enjoyed, too, how plugging in a keyboard and mouse converted the tablet's behavior to that of a laptop, down to the use of LibreOffice and other standard desktop applications. Nor did it need jailbreaking, although full access to the operating system was discretely hidden several levels deep.

Yet right from the start, the tablet was marketed poorly. Critics panned its mediocre specifications, and shoddy construction. It went almost unpromoted, and never did get released in North America, where it might have found a market despite its fault. When Canonical Software announced that it was moving resources from development of the Ubuntu Touch, few could have been surprised.

Hope for 2017
After these experiences, you might expect me to have lost all optimism. However, I have helped to bring products to market myself, and I know that most new products fail, regardless of their quality. Or perhaps I am a slow learner, although I have resisted several other projects that I thought might not deliver anything worth having.

Besides, I am still waiting for another product I backed: Keyboardio's Model A keyboard. The Model A is the ultimate keyboard: completely free software, mechanical keys individually sculpted and programmable, and the whole mounted on two pieces of maple that make it a work of art. The company has had production delays, but is finally nearing shipping, and for an obvious work of love like the Model A, I am tolerant of delays, especially since Keyboardio has kept backers informed of the delays each step of the way.

If Keyboardio delivers, my support of open hardware campaigns will be one for three  -- not a bad return in the chancy world of new tech products. The advantages of crowdfunding and free software do not alter that, so I can only hope.

Anyway, who knows what new projects may appear?

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