KDE Open Hardware

Dot-Org Mobile Hardware

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KDE starts a crowdfunding campaign for open hardware.

“If people want an environment for mobile and tablet applications like they had for PCs, someone has to do something,” says Carl Symons, a long-time KDE volunteer and member of the partner network for MakePLayLive, the KDE spinoff building the Vivaldi tablet and the Improv commercial-grade engineering board. “If we want open hardware, there’s really no choice.”

That may sound like a dramatic statement, but Symons is backing his words with a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to help create open hardware that runs KDE.

Specifically, the campaign is intended to raise funds for the first production run of Improv. According to Symons, before the CPU manufacturer will begin production, it requires a minimal pre-order from MakePlayLive of 1,500 units, at a cost of about $125,000. MakePlayLive currently has orders for fewer than 500, which leaves the Improv stalled in the prototype stage for the moment.

However, in the long term, the campaign is also the next step in MakePlayLive’s efforts to make open hardware developers a presence in retail manufacturing. Just as free software developers hope to capture the imagination of users with not just the software but the advantages of its licensing, so Symons hopes that the campaign will highlight not just Vivaldi or Improv, but the ideas that are driving their production.

“The need for technology freedom has moved from software to other more corporate-controllable areas,” Symons wrote in an article for The Dot, KDE’s newsletter. From this perspective, Vivaldi and Improv are not simply ends in themselves, but the first stages in the larger effort to make open hardware an active alternative.

The Hardware Critique

The fundraising campaign is the latest step in an effort that has evolved over the last two years. When Vivaldi was first announced in 2012 under the name Spark, the implications of open hardware were mentioned, but only in a general way. The focus was on the facts that KDE was proposing to produce hardware, and that Vivaldi would be the first tablet to use KDE’s Plasma Active interface.

However, as MakePlayLive discovered, the difficulties of producing a free-licensed tablet – including both a lack of suitable components and of manufacturers willing to work on the project – shifted the emphasis. Gradually, the group developed a critique of the hardware manufacturing industry that became the impetus for Improv, eventually producing a tentative answer about how to make open hardware an accepted part of the mobile device industry.

According to this critique, becoming involved with open hardware is much more difficult than contributing to a free software project. “If someone wants to work on KDE, or to make a patch for Linux, or to develop a patch for Drupal, all they need is a PC – it doesn’t even have to be that great – and they can make tons of stuff,” Symons said recently in a telephone interview. “They’re out of pocket time, but not money. But it doesn’t work that way with hardware. To do hardware, people want money.” In other words, the sheer scale of the effort that is needed to produce open hardware is much higher than the effort to build free software.

For one thing, the high costs of manufacturing mean that, to be taken seriously, newcomers need to budget a respectable amount of money. Symons speculates that this expectation is why the Ubuntu Edge crowdfunding campaign asked for $32 million. He suggests that the real cost of development would probably be far less, but that asking for a larger amounts is a necessity for credibility.

“If you go to an early round investor, they don’t event want to see a deal that’s not [at least] 5-10 million dollars,” Symons says. “That seems odd to me, but it does indicate that there’s significant costs in going up against the big boys. Ubuntu was trying to go the big money route, and it failed.”

Nor does it help that newcomers lack any record in the market. “Coming to a professional investor without a proven market – you just can’t do it,” Symons adds. “Investors want to know what you have already done.” Yet, unless someone gives the newcomers a break, they can never achieve credibility. They remain mired in a double-bind, unable to win no matter what happens.

Moreover, even if a newcomer manages to find funding, that is only the first obstacle to overcome. The market for mobile devices is an oligopoly of players like Apple, Google, and Samsung. Producing millions of units in contrast to the newcomer’s thousands, they quickly shut out newcomers by booking manufacturer’s time – sometimes months in advance.

“There’s no blame, no hidden agenda here,” Symons explains. “It’s just the way things work. For instance, you cannot get enough production now to get a retina display if you’re not Apple. Apple has bought them all. That’s why, although people have said they want a retina display on the Vivaldi, it’s simply not going to happen. It is not available for sale.”

The problem is not that no potential market for open hardware exists. As Symons suggests, Linux enthusiasts would undoubtedly support it, and, as the success of Raspberry Pi shows, so would hobbyists – who might not care much about licenses, but probably would appreciate the convenience of open standards and modular designs.

Rather, from MakePlayLive’s perspective, the problem is that the potential supporters are working on a small scale and are disorganized. MakePlayLive’s suggested solution is to reach back to the idea of the business co-operative that was popularized during the Great Depression of the 1930s. By encouraging supporters to join its brand, the group eventually hopes to operate on a large enough scale that it can book manufacturers and someday even exert enough influence that manufacturers start to take an interest in open standards and licenses.

That sounds like an overly ambitious goal. But then, in 1983, so did free software. “This is a watershed thing that we’re doing,” Symons says. “When you look at the political and commercial implications, this is a huge deal.”

With Open Eyes

From this perspective, the current fundraising campaign is only the first step toward a goal that will take years, even to start to realize. That is why Symons is urging people to get involved now.

“Consider buying an Improv, even if you don’t plan to play with it,” he writes on The Dot. “Give it to a student who has just started learning about technology …. Company engineers might use Improv as a platform for building a custom product. It serves well for prototyping, and can mature gracefully to market readiness. Most importantly, Improv can reduce a hardware development schedule by many months with substantial cost savings.”

Neither the current campaign nor MakePlayLive’s long-term goals have any guarantee of success. The smart money might even be against both. Still, as Symons said in his phone interview, “If we don’t do something, who’s going to do it? And if we don’t do it now, when is it going to happen? It’s time to start looking at things from that point of view.”

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