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Wednesday, 14 April 2010 12:39

Communications for the rest: Rowe and the Mesh Potato


David Rowe stands out from the average free and open source software person in at least two respects: he has done remarkable things with both software and hardware and despite this he is a very modest, low-key person.

It is fair to describe him as one of many unheralded Australians who does sterling work but is overshadowed by the many empty vessels who make a huge sound.

Rowe is involved in several projects, one of them being an outfit called The Village Telco, which is trying to provide communications to the African continent using open source telephony software and hardware. The project is sponsored by The Shuttleworth Foundation.

He is also involved in a free telephony project using similar components, building a network in East Timor, and developing an open source low bitrate speech codec.
David Rowe
For him, following a career in technology is something like a duck taking to water. "(I) crawled towards power points at 9 months, (and) was allowed to play with an extension cord as a reward for toilet training." he told iTWire in a recent interview.

Rowe was building torches at four, soldering electronic gadgets at nine ("some of them even worked," he says), and had a HAM radio licence at 13. He was programming BASIC and assembler on early Z-80 machines at 14 in the early 80s.

"I am primarily an electronics/communications guy, but that means programming and computing these days," Rowe says. "I remember reading about computers and programming in late 70s magazines like Electronics Australia (EA) and Electronics Today International (ETI). I drifted into computers in my teenage years, radio was my first interest."

He studied engineering to the doctorate level at the University of South Australia. Like many of his other achievements, he doesn't make much of this.

For eight years from 1995, Rowe founded and ran a small business, Voicetronix, which sold computer telephony hardware for Linux. The company is still running. "I sold to my partner," Rowe said. "I had a lot of fun building a growing it but I guess there was something missing that couldn't be satisfied with running a small business."

He developed open source telephony software and hardware because he wanted to build an embedded telephony device for a long time. "It was an itch I wanted to scratch. Then I discovered the Blackfin CPU and it all clicked.  I got the idea of open hardware from a post by Robin Getz on the Blackfin forums. I like the idea of messing with new ideas, overcame my fears of commercial loss, and went for it."

The Blackfin CPU has a low-power, unified processor architecture that can run operating systems while simultaneously handling complex numeric tasks such as real-time H.264 video encoding. Rowe has used it to build several devices, including an Asterisk Embedded PBX called the IP04.

The Village Telco project involves the use of something called a Mesh Potato - a combination of a low-cost wireless access point running mesh networking software with an analog telephony adaptor. These connect automatically forming a cloud; each relays phone calls for the others and greatly extends the range of the network.

The project also has a Village Telco Entrepreneur server - which combines network management, upstream voice connectivity and pay-as-you-go billing management. This allows a small business or a community project to provide voice and internet services.

Rowe shares his work with the world at large via his blog and website. Asked whether he had some kind of idealistic streak, judging from his own statement that he wanted to improve the world and whether he always had this outlook, he responded: "Nope. (I) was interested in making money and good engineering for a long time. My current outlook evolved by a processed of screwing up other employment opportunities and gradual osmosis of open source ideals."

And with his trademark wry humour, he adds: "I was cattle-prodded by life to a place of least pain." He is looking for sponsors for other projects like a low-cost router for use by the blind.

He is deeply interested in the concept of peak oil and uses an electric car. He says he's not really an environmentalist, but just has "a practical view of not wanting us to screw up our comfortable lives. People are not very receptive to the idea of Peak Oil. They need to feel a little pain first."

Rowe says that he maintains an inexpensive lifestyle. When I put it to him that he would become very rich if even half the trials of the Mesh Potato succeeded, he replied: "At present I don't have any equity position in the Village Telco or Mesh Potato, and that is fine with me. I just do the work as a contractor.

"One thing I like about open hardware and software is that instead of making a few people very rich it can make a lot of people a little bit richer. If I had a little more money I would employ a small team to finish of a few other ideas that could help improve the world - like HF Mesh radio."

And again, his wry humour kicks in: "The idea of having a lot of money horrifies me. Too much responsibility."

Rowe has given presentations at the last three Australian national Linux conferences. "I still remember the thunderous applause from the first presentation on the Free telephony Project.  Meant a lot.  Just getting _into_ LCA means a lot - the standard is so high," he says. "Not sure about the long term effect on my project, but mixing with geeks at LCA is a good thing.  I think I am getting more out of LCA each year as I mature as an open source developer."

He recently vised the Cebit in Germany. "(I was in) Hanover, helping Atcom (who make the IP0X open hardware/software products) on their booth. First time at Cebit. The reception has been great. As a developer of the products I can really help the customers and answer their questions. Even had fun trying to make some sales. I also had some wonderful feedback from readers of my blog who came and visited me - it really helps move traditional business relationships to a more friendlier, genuine plane."

Despite all the great work he has done, Rowe remains very a modest man. "My wife Rosemary and I run a small lifestyle business selling the IP0X products," he says. "Helps support my hacking and fund the development of more open hardware and software."


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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