Open Hardware collective develops single-board computer


Article from Issue 160/2014

The KDE Vivaldi tablet isn't here yet, but its development team is proposing cooperative businesses and open hardware as the future of free software.

Remember Vivaldi [1] (a.k.a. Spark), KDE's tablet? Announced about two years ago, it has been delayed several times since, as those producing it learned the hard realities of hardware manufacture. Vivaldi should finally arrive in 2014, but, meanwhile, the effort put into it has had two results: what KDE Plasma developer Aaron Seigo calls a "cooperative brand" and Improv [2], an engineering board intended to help develop a hardware industry for devices compliant with the GNU General Public License (GPL).

Both Vivaldi and Improv are products of Make Play Live [3]. Originally created to build Vivaldi, Make Play Live has evolved into an organization that consists of small companies that pool their expertise to produce and market commercial products that would be beyond the scope of any one of them [4]. These efforts are coordinated by Coherent Theory LC, described in the list of Partner Network members as "caretaker of the Make·Play·Live brand," which includes an adherence to Make Play Live's philosophy [5] and commitments [6], both of which are firmly grounded in free software.

Improv itself consists of a swappable ARM CPU, a feature board for devices such as USB and Ethernet ports, and wireless and touchscreen support. It runs Mer OS [7], which Seigo describes as a "minimal operating system to be useful," a Linux kernel, and the standard tools on either the X Window System or Wayland. Its suggested price is US$ 75, and according to Seigo, Make Play Live can help create device prototypes in as little as six weeks.

As Seigo explains, this emphasis on being a building block for manufacturers is what sets Improv apart from similar inexpensive engineering boards. Referring to the wildly popular Raspberry Pi, he says, "it's a great little kit, but its not very powerful at all. Once you've got the Raspberry Pi in your hands, you can do a variety of little projects with it, but that's pretty much what it is and always will be – a Raspberry Pi board. There's a gap between actual hardware that's on the market for consumer electronics and hobbyist/educational things. There really wasn't a great place for medium and small sized companies to be able to realize hardware designs and merge them with free software so that they are hackable."

"There's nothing like it," Seigo insists. "If there were, we never would have made it."

Seigo describes Improv as designed "for those who care about free software or those who wish to sell in North America or Europe or other places where intellectual property laws are enforced." However, he admits that it has had to compromise by adopting a non-free Android driver when hardware acceleration is needed.

"We sort of have to hold our noses right now," Seigo says. "Android accounts for the majority of sales right now in this sector, and other than that you have Apple iOS. Neither of them care one bit about the freeness of drivers. Google cares about GPL compliance on devices it makes; it doesn't care about GPL compliance on devices other companies make, even if they are certified Android. There's really no champion in the industry trying to fix this."

However, by encouraging a market for GPL-compliant devices, Seigo suggests that Make Play Live can gain a hearing among hardware manufacturers:

If we don't engage, if we just sit there and say, "Well, we're not going to touch it until there's drivers for OpenGL," if we don't participate, we'll never have any voice in the decision-making. The one thing that manufacturers listen to is order volume. But we're under no illusion. This will be a multi-year effort to create the [necessary] volume. But the first step is, we need to have tools for people who would like to create such things. And right now, you need a lot of patience, and you need a lot of connections with manufacturing – and those things are outside the possibilities in the minds of most people.

Scaling Expectations

Improv and Make Play Live are the results of what Seigo describes as "a journey of understanding." When Vivaldi was first announced, Seigo and other participants in Make Play Live imagined that the tablet would ship in a matter of a few months. However, they soon found that a new company faced almost insurmountable obstacles in bringing a product to market. To start, major manufacturers are used to shipping a minimum of several hundred thousand units. The few thousand units Make Play Live was considering were of no interest to them.

Turning to the mid-range manufacturers, Make Play Live hoped to assemble Vivaldi using off-the-shelf components. However, "we always got this stereotypical response: 'This looks really good. We can see a future for it. Let someone else do it first.' It's an extremely conservative industry, with a very small profit margin and a really small margin for error, because there's only so many projects that they can crank out every year." According to Seigo, what the mid-range manufacturers wanted was a product – preferably a clone of a success like the Samsung Galaxy tablets that would involve minimal risk – that they could produce in one production run before moving on to the next industry trend.

Nor did Make Play Live's philosophy simplify matters. "The amount of non-GPL-compliant devices was shocking," Seigo says. "Well over 90 percent of the vendors we talked to did not want to supply source code for their devices. You really have to choose carefully who you worked with."

Eventually, Seigo continues, "We made the very painful decision that the only way we were going to make this happen would be to get into some level of hardware development from scratch." Make Play Live was in no position to produce its own original designs – an undertaking that involves hundreds of engineers, when it would be lucky to muster dozens – so the only option left was to select generic hardware and then design printed circuit boards for it, as well as a screen and case.

Slowly and carefully, Make Play Live assembled resources, finding one company to build the needed boards and another to attach components, one company to manufacture the CPU in China and another in the United States to build the feature board. Eventually, Make Play Live looked at what they were doing "and realized that this was something we could offer to other people as a complete solution. This is where Improv was born."

Early Responses

Improv was announced less than two weeks ago, but already Seigo describes the response as "quite good." Hobbyists and free software advocates are especially interested, and Make Play Live has had two inquiries about manufacturing customized boards. "What's interesting," says Seigo, "is that both the groups we are talking to would never be able to produce such products by themselves because they don't have the core competencies. But having access to such a device really gives them a significant advantage.

Asked what might happen in the future, Seigo answers, "Who knows? That's why the name 'Improv.'" But, he suggests that headless servers, router feature boards, media centers, home backup devices, and small business servers are well within Improv's capacities. Seigo also suggests that Improv could accelerate free software's support of ARM architecture by providing low-cost devices for testing.

These efforts will take years to be successful, but Seigo sounds cautiously optimistic about taking free software expertise and applying it to hardware. "The good thing is that all the pieces are there, and we have access to manufacturing. We have access to really competent System on Chip, and ARM CPUs, and now we have people involved who can do the hardware design around those components. The question is putting all these pieces together, but there are more people who could do more if they have a starting point as complete and as familiar as Improv."

Make Play Live and Improv are obviously ambitious undertakings, but in their effort to form cooperative businesses and expand the influence of open hardware, they propose fresh ideas about how free software might evolve – ideas that could easily become more important than whether they (or Vivaldi) fail or succeed.

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