Introduction

To sponsor the work that I am doing via gratipay please click here: https://gratipay.com/luke.leighton/

Hi, my name is Luke Leighton, and if you have heard of http://phonebloks.com, what they are doing for mobile phones I am doing for everything else: laptops, tablets, desktops and more.

So, the benefits described on the phonebloks page that captivated the attention of over 350 million people in their social media campaign last year apply equally as well to what I am doing, the difference being that phonebloks is an advocacy forum, and I am actually successfully making real hardware.

Designing hardware is a lot of work, handing a lot of day-to-day details (suppliers, designs, CAD work) and it would be great to be able to focus on that 100% without distractions, or, as I have done in the past, funded the work by putting it on part-time hold and taking Contract work or other full-time employment. As the project is at a critical phase (with the first crowd-funded product due to launch), now is a good time to remain full-time on it.

What's the overall goal, then? What's the details?

This is actually incredibly comprehensive (it has to be), and has several target audiences, each of which has an attractive simple benefit. So there's a different "short-list" for end-users, a different one for software libre developers, a different one for mass-volume factories and so on. However, with that in mind it's worthwhile outlining the whole strategy, so that the benefits for everyone involved, right from designers to factory to end-users, can be clearly understood.

The overall goal is to create mass-volume desirable hardware that:

  • reduces the long-term cost of ownership to its users
  • increases security for users through:
    • a removable System Card containing all data and applications that is small enough to put into a wallet
    • guarantees to have no spyware in FSF-Endorseable products
    • is bootable directly from read-only external media
    • contains no DRM-locked non-removable and unverifiable, untrustworthy binary bootloaders.
  • reduces e-waste and cost due to shareable modular plug-and-play reusable blocks
  • has a thriving Open Hardware community around the modular standards
  • has as many products with FSF Endorseable status as possible
  • invites the Libre Software and Open Hardware communities to participate in getting product design concepts through to mass-volume markets
  • ensure that all and any products, components and software are pre-vetted for Libre License Compliance (no GPL violations, no incompatible NDAs, no DRM-locked source code for which the keys are not available).

So, we can see that this is quite a comphensive strategy, with different benefits for different groups. The benefit for end-users: reduced cost of ownership, less vendor lock-in, better privacy and so on. For factory owners: being able to purchase a large stock of System Card components (at discounted volumes) knowing that these will be shared across a huge range of interoperable pre-existing products (with that reduced cost being passed on to the end-users), and so on.

There are plenty of Open Hardware Projects: what's different here?

For those people who are familiar with the various Open Hardware projects of the past decade, it is worthwhile emphasising the difference between them and what I am doing, as over the years I have encountered many times people asking "surely what you are doing is identical to something that already exists?" and that is most emphatically not the case, otherwise I would not be pursuing it for five years (so far!)

  • OpenPandora has the goal of creating an open hand-held games platform in a micro-laptop form-factor. It is non-modular, and its first version had a target audience of around 4,000 people (so pricing is relatively high). The difference is: you will be able to buy off-the-shelf mass-volume Computer Cards (with the benefit of lower pricing from volume), and plug them into a base hand-held "Games Console" (there is in fact a third party already working on such a modular upgradeable EOMA68 Games Console).
  • OpenMoko had the goal of creating an open mobile phone. It was non-modular, but was targetted at mass-volume. The difference is: whilst EOMA68 is also targetted at mass-volume, users again will be able to upgrade their device at a lower cost (just buy the latest Computer Card, press a button and push in the new card), even try out new upgrades before they buy, borrow a spare base unit if theirs breaks, and, importantly, when sending base units away for repair they can take out the Computer Card (with all their private data) so it not only doesn't get lost but also they can carry on by using a spare base unit.
  • 96boards and other "Engineering Standards", as well as "Open Engineering Boards" such as the beagleboard, cubieboard, banana pi and so on: these have the goal of reducing the cost of prototyping engineering (both hardware and software).
    • The difference is: EOMA68 compliant devices bring an even lower cost to the engineering prototyping environment, by the fact that the main Computer Card will be an off-the-shelf mass-volume "commodity component" that can be re-purposed.
    • There is then the advantage that when or if a particular processor goes end-of-life, then unlike other engineering boards based on low-cost "consumer" branded processors with no guaranteed lifetime, the alternative latest Computer Card may be purchased instead without requiring a complete redesign of the base unit.
    • Also, it costs much less money to develop a simple 2 or 4 layer PCB: EOMA68 Computer Cards have the complex RAM and Processor layouts already taken care of, in an off-the-shelf format.
    • Also, again, as many people sadly have found out when buying off-the-shelf low-cost tablets from China in order to re-purpose them, they find that although they can get 1,000 units for $30 each, making their low-volume product concept financially viable against larger competitors from a hardware perspective, it almost invariably turns out that the China-sourced tablet is GPL-violating, thus requiring that the hardware engineers learn specialist reverse-engineering skills. By contrast, EOMA68 products are guaranteed to respect Software Libre Licenses. In the mass-volume industry, it's too risky not to, because illegal products may be impounded and destroyed at Customs, with no recourse to liability insurance claims due to the criminal infringment. Copyright Law is very very strict in this respect.

What about Licensing? Will there be designs available for download?

There already are.

As I am a Software Libre Engineer and Advocate who has turned a focus towards developing Hardware as well, much of what I am doing will be (and in many cases already is) available under Libre Hardware Licenses that properly respect your freedom and allow you to make modified derivatives of the products if you so wish.

To make that absolutely clear: many Open Hardware Projects release their design files under, for example, Creative Commons "Non-Commercial" Attribution Licenses, which are not Libre Licenses: they force you to advertise the original author of the work, and you are not permitted to make money from your derivative works. By complete contrast the work that I am doing will have examples available that are truly Libre Licensed. No Advertising. You Can Make Money. Here's an article by Dr Stallman which explains why this matters: http://www.wired.com/2015/03/richard-stallman-how-to-make-hardware-designs-free/

What products are available, and how far along are they?

I currently have the following products, some of them Open Hardware designs, and some with 100% committed sponsors, in the follow stages of development:

  • EOMA68-A20 CPU Card: 100% proven, ready for crowd-funding
  • EOMA68 Micro-Desktop: 100% proven, ready for crowd-funding
  • EOMA68-JZ4775: 1st prototype ready and going to assembly
  • EOMA68 7in Tablet: 3rd prototype ready and going to assembly
  • EOMA68-IC3128 CPU Card: 99% proven, ready for Libre Engineers
  • EOMA68 15.6in 1366x768 Laptop: in development
  • EOMA68-A33 CPU Card: needs $3,600 to release designs and samples

There are more products planned however this is the immediate list. Future plans include an Educational Engineering Board, a modular smartphone, MID Player, Portable DVD Player, a Digital SLR Camera, a Media Centre, a Robotics Educational Platform and many many more.

All of these products will take modular "System Cards" - an entire functional "Computer on a Card" in its own right that will be interchangeable, shareable and plug-and-play swappable between all other products in the family. You will, for example be able to take pictures on a compatible camera, then instead of taking out the memory card from the camera, take the System card out, put it into a bigger system with a large screen and edit the photos and video directly. or even just simply plug in a larg monitor and full-sized keyboard directly into the camera and use the editing software directly: that sort of thing. There are so many possibilities when a full computer is in such a small memory-card-style form-factor it's amazing.

Are you already receiving some kind of sponsorship or funding?

Yes...

For those products not already 100% proven and ready to go to Crowd-funding, I have sponsors who are prepared to pay for the PCBs of the immediate products, and I have a 3D printer where I can create casework prototypes. The reason why I am here on gratipay is because what I need is around $500 per week to cover living expenses until at least around September 2015, which will be enough time to get through the crowd-funding phase for the Micro-Desktop unit, as well as complete the Laptop and Tablet prototypes.

Anything more than that is also equally gratefully received as it allows the various plans - product development - to be accelerated enormously, to expand the product range quicker and allow more businesses to serve more people with secure and independently verifiably trustworthy spyware-free products: products whose lifetime can be extended by upgrading, or usefully repurposed instead of being discarded.

Why does FSF Endorseability matter?

Surprisingly, it's not just about the lack of spyware that comes with FSF-Endorseable products. It's also not just about the "freedom to tinker", either. In speaking with companies that have sold Libre Hardware products, I was startled to learn that their customers are happy to pay a little bit extra because the products just work.

How many times have you purchased a laptop, tablet or desktop unit, upgraded it and found that the WIFI or 3D Accelerated Graphics no longer works properly? Or that certain apps no longer function correctly or at all?

By complete contrast, because part of the FSF Endorsement criteria requires that all source code be made available, even for firmware in peripherals, even if you carry out a full Operating System reinstall the computer almost 100% will just work.

So Libre businesses sell Libre Hardware because their support calls are far less, meaning that their customers are happier and are more loyal. This was quite an eye opener, to learn that the FSF Endorsement criteria have real and direct benefits to users.

Conclusion

Ultimately, then, this is about reducing e-waste, empowering end-users by reducing cost of ownership, giving them back control of the hardware they own, empowering Software and Hardware Libre and Open Engineers in ways that the current situation - with endemic GPL-violations - does not, and much much more.

Even efforts by Open Source friendly companies to meet a small fraction of these aims have and can be demonstrated to be less than ideal. Free from corporate control and investors with a controlling interest I can and will reach the goals that I have set - with or without your help I have set myself a committment of ten years. With your help however I can reach more people earlier than without.

Someone has to do something, and I invite you to support the efforts that I am undertaking so that, over the next few years, when there is at least some secure inviolate FSF-Endorseable Hardware out there in the hands of the average end-users, you can say "I couldn't have done what this person did, creating FSF-Endorseable Laptops and Tablets and so on, but at least I didn't sit by and let the current (NSA-spying and Corporate pathological profit-maximising) situation persist: instead, I was one of the people who contributed financially, and in that way I helped make mass-produced reliable, easy to use, environmentally friendly, secure, spyware-free FSF-Endorseable Open Hardware a reality".

Testimonials

If you would like to read some testimonials about this work, they are being added here: http://rhombus-tech.net/testimonials/