Aim: Small (Free as in Speech) Linux device which can be upgraded
In particular, a small CPU card which :-
- Complies with GPL (Free as in Libre and in Speech) License
For example I can buy a tablet, after a few years the display, touch-screen and memory will be perfect. After a few years I may want to upgrade the CPU, or fix a software bug, or both - at the moment with all other approaches this is not really possible.
We are aiming for this CPU Card will have full GPL Source Code publicly available and will be suitable for many purposes including use as a Freedom Box, or as an embedded computer, or in the future to drive products such as Tablets, Laptops, IPTVs and Desktop PCs simply by plugging it in. These devices can then run a nice GNU/Linux distribution like Debian, Ubuntu or similar.
Not many tablets or small devices run a nice GNU/Linux distribution like Debian, Ubuntu or similar. They are either low powered, closed source, GPL violating or not cheap.
The problem that if you want low-cost mass-produced hardware, you normally have to go with GPL-violating product. We then spend the majority of our time reverse-engineering before getting something useful. By the time we are done, the product is usually end-of-life: thus if it breaks, we are back to square one. If there is a security bug in the kernel supplied - again we are back to square one.
The reason for the GPL violations is that the low-cost China-based Factories simply have zero software skill and a chain of about five business relationships between the seller and manufacturer. The manufacturer has got their money at this stage, so at this point we are asking the manufacturer for more effort in return for no extra income. Thus, we logically concluded that the only way to get non-GPL-violating product out there is to go directly to the factories and be the supplier of their software.
Aim of this Funding Round
To get funding, to deliver a stable CPU on a card :-
- GPL: Full source code available.
- Powerful: 1.2ghz (possibly overclockable to 1.5ghz)
- Upgradeable: A standard layout, which will allow the card to be ejected and replaced.
- Cheap: Stable version at $49 ex VAT
Progress So Far
Rhombus Tech has been established to serve Free Software Developers, entrepreneurs, enthusiasts and Engineers with access to affordable, modern and importantly GPL-compliant hardware. It is a Community interest company - designed for social enterprises that want to use their profits and assets for the public good.
Over the past two years we been contacting and vetting China-based factories, directly, to find at least one which is prepared to work with us. We found one.
We have also found an absolutely great CPU, called the Allwinner A10, which in mass-volume quantities is only about $11.50: that means that a PCB similar to the raspberrypi with similar features, yet with 1gb of RAM can be available for about $49 ex VAT and, because the Allwinner CPU is an ARM Cortex A8 not an ARM11 it is at least three times quicker than the raspberrypi's CPU. (The A10 is a 400-pin highly feature-rich 1.5ghz ARM Cortex A8 with a MALI400 GPU. )
We have full support of the Board of Directors of the Allwinner CPU: they released full source code to us in advance. We have made it available and found it to compile successfully.
We have selected a standard layout (re-use of the legacy PCMCIA form-factor) which is exactly credit-card size, at 86 by 54 mm.
- Complies with GPL - Yes
- Powerful - Yes
- Upgradeable - Yes
- Interfaces - HDMI, USB-OTG, MicroSD, Audio and EOMA-68
The primary reason for using a Community Interest Company for the sale of GPL-compliant products to Free Software Developers is that profits from sales will be re-invested directly into development of further products, with a primary focus of serving the Free Software Community yet at the same time leveraging mass-volume sales opportunities.
But this needs a kick-start. Then the end-product will get cheaper, then profits are re-invested and end-products get cheaper still. The snowball needs a little magic snow to get it started.
Magic Snow required: $13,500
To fund the three stages:-
- Unstable (Also know as Sid for all Debian lovers) : $3,500
- Testing Stage: $4,000
- Stable: $6,000
- Long Term Support: Self-funding
Unstable (Revision 0)
10 CPU PCBs (Revision 0) have been printed, at a cost of $1,500. Sample-level pricing for the parts is likely to be about another $500.
This gives us the hardware only (no casework). Time for the 15 Debian developers, already on board to start coding. (Bootloader, Kernel and main software).
Timeframe for availability: approximately end of October 2012
These PCBs are, due to a mis-communication, 85x55mm in size: they should be around 75x45 (in order to fit into a PCMCIA case rather than be the same size as a PCMCIA case). They would however suit someone who needs an Engineering Board, and they will serve as Demo units.
Unstable (Revision 1)
10 CPU PCBs at a cost of around $2,000.
Timeframe for availability: approximately mid December 2012
These PCBs will fit inside a PCMCIA framekit (top and bottom shield covers).
100 CPU cards available at a total cost of around $5,000
We have a board, the bootloader work and the kernel is okay. No full Distribution images as yet. If you are a software developer and are basically happy to get involved doing u-boot, debian-installer, ubuntu images a board is suitable to play with at this point. Hard, but not impossible.
These boards will be available as premium rewards.
200 CPU cards available at a total cost of around $10,000
Timeframe - approximately Feb/Mar 2013
Profits permitting, Rhombus Tech to give boards to developers who helped with coding. The remainder of CPU cards to be sent as rewards.
Micro Engineering Board
100 basic PCBs which will provide access to the SATA, USB, Ethernet, I2C, RGB/TTL and GPIO pins of any EOMA-68 CPU Card in a convenient format by providing jumper headers as well as standard eSATA, USB and RJ-45 connectors. The [http://elinux.org/Embedded_Open_Modular_Architecture/EOMA-68/MiniEngineeringBoard#Smaller_Example_Board Micro Engineering Board] also provides a 5V power socket.
Long Term Support (Just for Ubuntu lovers)
The CPU cards will be produced and sold in mass-volume. At this stage, some CPU Cards may still be through Rhombus Tech, with profits used to seed new CPU Cards developments.
Our ultimate aim is however for the CPU Cards to reach mainstream such that they can be bought off-the-shelf or on the Internet, along-side retail products (tablets, laptops, LCD Monitors etc.) into which any EOMA-68 CPU Card such as this one will fit.
Rhombus Tech would, at this point, be receiving a share of the profits from patent licensing, and thus would be able to directly fund Free Software Developers including providing developers with advance access to new CPU Cards.
This is an exciting opportunity which sums up as "putting the cart in front of the horse": Free Software Developers having a say and being involved directly in the development of mass-volume retail products sold throughout the world.
Total funds required for Unstable, Testing and Stable stages: $13,500
- Rev.0 CPU Cards - $100 (5 available, 5 reserved for clients = $500)
- Rev.1 CPU Cards - $100 (5 available, 5 reserved for clients = $500)
- Testing CPU Cards - $50 (Aiming for 100 = $5,000)
- Stable CPU Cards, with working OS image - $50 (Aiming for 200 = $10,000)
- Micro Engineering Board - $20 (Aiming for 100 = $2,000)
- Mini Engineering Board - $45 (Aiming for 100 = $4,500)
- An EOMA-68 Sticker sent world wide - $5 ($1.50 profit per sticker)
- Mention in the source code - $5
- A certificate mentioning your contribution to the Small (Free as in Speech) Linux device which can be upgraded. - $10
- A testing CPU Card, with your choice of Debian Packages loaded by a Debian Developer - $250
- You select the code name for the Unstable Board (legal, ethical names only) - $250
- You select the code name for Testing CPU Card (legal, ethical names only) - $500
- You select the code name for Stable CPU Card (legal, ethical names only) - $1,000