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Guest on 3rd September 2021 08:21:53 PM

  5. A British community interest company, Rhombus Tech, is part of the way
  6. towards developing a micro-computer on a circuit board, much like the
  7. Raspberry Pi.
  9. The man behind the effort, Luke Kenneth Casson Leighton, says his product
  10. will be much more powerful, having an ARM Cortex A8 CPU, which is 3x
  11. times faster than the 700mhz ARM11 used in the Raspberry Pi. The cost
  12. of his device will be around $US15.
  14. Leighton, who is a free software developer, is also attempting to bring
  15. together FOSS developers with Chinese hardware makers, so that each can
  16. use the other's creation and benefit from doing so.
  18. He has ambitious plans to help build a number of devices, including a
  19. tablet, using the same method - harnessing the effort of free software
  20. developers and Chinese hardware manufacturers.
  22. One thing he sees as a plus in the tablet effort is that it will create
  23. an Android system that conforms to the norms of the GPL and be easier
  24. for FOSS developers to deal with. At present, there is a plethora or
  25. tablets and many of the manufacturers, who are the vendors as well,
  26. are unaware of GPL requirements or else do not care.
  28. "We are acting as the catalyst to invite other people to make such
  29. products by inviting them to participate, through the EOMA-PCMCIA
  30. initiative - simplified modular upgradeable hardware - and putting them
  31. in touch with Software (Libre) Developers," Leighton says.
  33. "We're not funding the products, we're doing deals with factories and
  34. with SoC fabless semiconductor companies, offering them free access to
  35. free software developers, asking them in return that they not charge us
  36. for their hardware engineering time."
  38. Leighton says the efforts he is making are both altruistic and
  39. profit-oriented. "The fundamental principles behind Software (Libre)
  40. are more important to me than profit, but no profit gets you nowhere,
  41. so we're setting out to do something rather unusual: merge both worlds.
  43. "I've learned the lesson: you can't make money from selling software
  44. (Libre) as a service in a world which has been Pavlov-trained to pay
  45. for boxed product and zero for the service. Patronage is dead - I'm the
  46. lead developer of - or have been the lead developer of - quite a number
  47. of free software projects, and the amount of money I've received through
  48. donations since 1996 is under $1000 in total. That's under $65 per year,
  49. despite saving hundreds of thousands of businesses vast sums of money
  50. in proprietary software licence fees.
  52. "Instead, we've made the decision to profit from sales of hardware,
  53. with GPL-compliant software (Libre) pre-installed that actually does the
  54. job, masquerading as 'yet another mass-volume product' and beating the
  55. (GPL-violating) competition on price, convenience and usefulness."
  57. Leighton has been at this game for nearly eight years. "I started
  58. contacting companies to get the source code of Linux phones - the
  59. Shanghai-based E28 smartphone, for example - back in about 2004," he says.
  61. "It was a complete failure. I just had to let the GPL violations
  62. go. Instead I focused on reverse-engineering HTC's smartphones. Then
  63. Android came along, some years later, and the situation has clearly got
  64. worse, not better."
  66. But there are some upsides to the plethora of Android devices out in
  67. the market. "At least the cost of hardware came tumbling down. However,
  68. because of Android and because of the endemic GPL violations surrounding
  69. Android, this fantastic hardware, which could potentially be used for
  70. so much more than it is, is basically stuck in dead-end roles such as
  71. 'browsing uh few web pagiz', 'wotchin uh film' and 'playing a few gamez
  72. like angry burds'."
  74. He has had some interesting early experiences trying to achieve his
  75. goal, learning through his own mistakes. "As the very first experimental
  76. ARM11 (non-x86) Linux-based (non-Android), laptop (non-tablet) hardware
  77. began to make its way out of China-based R&D companies, we reached out
  78. to them. The first was the Chitech CT-PC89E which turned out to be a
  79. complete nightmare, but an important learning curve."
  81. "Over the course of several months, and after 18 months of thinking about
  82. what the hell went wrong, empirical evidence tends to suggest that the
  83. development of the CT-PC89E was PRC Government-funded, and was supposed
  84. to be used for monitoring of PRC citizens, in a hardware-locked fashion,
  85. running an ARM-based PRC-Government-funded port of Red Flag Linux."
  87. Leighton says that he was "naively" intending to sell this ARM-based
  88. laptop in Europe and asked for versions of the laptop that would support
  89. European-based EDGE/3G modems. All that he was offered were China Telecom
  90. WCDMA modems that would only work in China.
  92. Since source code could not be obtained, he took recourse to
  93. reverse-engineering. "We reverse-engineered the Linux kernel (discovering
  94. some very poorly-designed 'security' measures along the way), installed
  95. Debian on it, and an associate of ours took it along to their office and
  96. presented one of their machines running Debian/Lenny to them. They went
  97. extremely quiet.
  99. "The poor girls at the Chitech factory in China, who have absolutely no
  100. software engineers but just 'make hardware', were so scared of what they
  101. learned, through us, that they pulled the product from their portfolio. We
  102. were the first - and last - people to ever order samples. That was over
  103. two years ago, now."
  105. Leighton was not put off, however, and persisted in trying to make
  106. headway. Next we decided that this was a ridiculous situation, and began
  107. a process of contacting more than 200 factories in China to find one that
  108. was willing to do a deal. Two years later, we found one. It actually
  109. took going over to China and having face-to-face meetings with over 30
  110. companies even to find that one factory."
  112. His deal with the factory basically boils down to "we won't charge you
  113. for software engineering if you won't charge us for hardware engineering".
  115. "As these factories often have to pay large sums of cash upfront for
  116. BSPs (board support packages) and then have to also pay to have them
  117. customised so that the factory at least has 'some' unique selling point
  118. and they 'still' end up with a GPL-violating binary-only firmware blob,
  119. it's a good deal for them," he says.
  121. The problems Leighton has faced make for interesting reading - though
  122. they were anything but interesting at the time when he encountered them.
  124. "We've bought samples from factories, shipped some of them to potential
  125. clients, requested the GPL source code and been denied access to it, in
  126. direct violation of the GPL," he says. "Often we were told that we had
  127. to place orders for 20,000 units in order to be given the source code;
  128. we told them absolutely not, why the hell would we place such a massive
  129. order for an untested product that didn't do the job that the client
  130. needed? In the cases where product was shipped to potential clients prior
  131. to non-receipt of the GPL source code, this was incredibly embarrassing
  132. for us."
  134. What he has learned is that there is a long chain of people involved,
  135. with communication breakdowns and GPL violations in some cases beginning
  136. right at the start of the chain.
  138. "The SoC (system on a chip) manufacturer provides a reference design
  139. including a BSP. The reference design is bought by original design
  140. manufacturers (ODMs), usually under NDA (which is the first GPL
  141. violation). The ODMs license their modifications to factories and give
  142. them binary-only distributions, a second GPL violation.
  144. "The factories have absolutely no software engineers. They do not even
  145. know what source code is, let alone what an 'Apache' (licence) or a
  146. 'GPL' is. The factories sell product to importers who sell to importers;
  147. they in turn sell to wholesalers who sell to retailer and from there it
  148. is sold to end-users."
  150. Leighton says it is absolute hell to chase a GPL violation back through
  151. this chain, fighting ignorance and arrogance across international
  152. boundaries every step of the way. "After trying to be patient with this
  153. process, several times, we have concluded that it is a complete waste
  154. of time to pursue GPL violations just to do a deal, Selling hardware
  155. product that is GPL-compliant: it's too late by then."
  157. Instead, he has decided to do things a different way. "We are looking to
  158. work with the factories and with the SoC vendors, being involved right
  159. down the chain, keeping software (Libre) developers involved and informed
  160. along the way as well, such that the products, when they reach the shelves
  161. in Europe for example, are fully GPL-compliant before they even get there.
  163. "That involves finding a SoC company, a factory and software (Libre)
  164. developers who will trust us, as well as finding a hypermarket retail
  165. store in Europe that will trust us!"
  167. Despite all these issues, light is visible at the end of the
  168. tunnel. "We're at a critical phase where we've managed to convince
  169. our first China-based factory of the value of a 'we won't charge you
  170. for software engineering time if you won't charge us for hardware
  171. engineering time' deal. The CPU that we've found is an ARM Cortex A8,
  172. it runs at up to 1.5ghz, it's an absolute corker, and it's only $7 in
  173. mass-volume. That means that a PCB that's equivalent to the Raspberry
  174. Pi in size and features could be manufactured for a whopping 40% less
  175. money - only around $15 instead of $25, and yet it would be at least 3
  176. times faster than the Raspberry Pi (which uses only a 700mhz ARM11),"
  177. Leighton says.
  179. "We have the full support of the SoC fabless semiconductor company,
  180. Allwinner: they've given us full access to the GPL source code and
  181. the complete BSP; from a small-scale series of announcements (we've
  182. kept it to the debian-arm mailing list so far) we have 15 software
  183. (Libre) developers interested in buying first betas of the 'bare-bones'
  184. EOMA-PCMCIA-compliant CPU card using Allwinner's CPU card."
  186. While Rhombus Tech's first product will be just a credit-card-sized PCMCIA
  187. CPU card that can run as a USB-OTG-powered computer, Leighton says that,
  188. provided there are sufficient advance orders, "for a 10-inch laptop,
  189. with Android, we're looking at mass-volume pricing of around £90,
  190. retail, in the UK (and about £125 for a 12in one). For a 7-inch tablet
  191. (with the lower-quality but lower-priced resistive touch screen), we're
  192. looking at around £50 retail."
  194. He says the only reason this is achievable is because there was no
  195. £250,000 to £500,000 up-front cost on development of the product -
  196. not on the cost of the hardware, and not on the cost of the software. The
  197. the products will all be fully GPL-compliant.
  199. "What's even better is that when a new, or faster, or cheaper (or all
  200. three) CPU comes along, then rather than force people to throw away the
  201. entire device, we will be in a position to pay a factory to get a new
  202. EOMA-PCMCIA-compliant CPU card out in record time, and then just sell
  203. that through the same channels, as a user-installable 'upgrade' to their
  204. 'existing' laptop, tablet, desktop, Internet TV, whatever it is that's
  205. been designed to take EOMA-PCMCIA-compliant CPU cards at the time."
  207. "With the Embedded Computing market moving so rapidly, we want to give
  208. both factories and users the opportunity to keep up-to-date without
  209. feeling guilty about land-fill.  And, the GPL compliance and involvement
  210. of the Free Software Community means that the devices will always be
  211. 'unlocked', and will serve both their original purpose as well as being
  212. a low-cost Open Educational and R&D platform."
  214. Rhombus Tech has just five people involved, all operating on a
  215. commissions-only basis. The relationships between the five go way back,
  216. with the company being set up just two years

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