Tuesday, 10 January 2012 08:42

British company looks to create cheap, open platforms


A British community interest company, Rhombus Tech, is part of the way towards developing a micro-computer on a circuit board, much like the Raspberry Pi.

The man behind the effort, Luke Kenneth Casson Leighton, says his product will be much more powerful, having an ARM Cortex A8 CPU, which is 3x times faster than the 700mhz ARM11 used in the Raspberry Pi. The mass-volume cost target being aimed for is $US15 and it will be available for educational purposes as well as being a part of a retail product line.

Leighton (pictured below), who is a free software developer, is also attempting to bring together FOSS developers with Chinese hardware makers, so that each can use the other's creation and benefit from doing so.

He has ambitious plans for Rhombus Tech to help build a number of devices, including a tablet, using the same method - harnessing the effort of free software developers and Chinese hardware manufacturers.

One thing he sees as a plus in the tablet effort is that it will create an Android system that conforms to the norms of the GPL and be easier for FOSS developers to deal with. At present, there is a plethora or tablets and many of the manufacturers, who are the vendors as well, are unaware of GPL requirements or else do not care.
Luke Leighton
"We are acting as the catalyst to invite other people to make such products by inviting them to participate, through the EOMA-PCMCIA initiative - simplified modular upgradeable hardware - and putting them in touch with Software (Libre) Developers," Leighton says.   

"We're not funding the products, we're doing deals with factories and with SoC fabless semiconductor companies, offering them free access to free software developers, asking them in return that they not charge us for their hardware engineering time."

Leighton says the efforts he is making are both altruistic and profit-oriented. "The fundamental principles behind Software (Libre) are more important to me than profit, but no profit gets you nowhere, so we're setting out to do something rather unusual: merge both worlds.

"I've learned the lesson: you can't make money from selling software (Libre) as a service in a world which has been Pavlov-trained to pay for boxed product and zero for the service. Patronage is dead - I'm the lead developer of - or have been the lead developer of - quite a number of free software projects, and the amount of money I've received through donations since 1996 is under $1000 in total. That's under $65 per year, despite saving hundreds of thousands of businesses vast sums of money in proprietary software licence fees.

"Instead, we've made the decision to profit from sales of hardware, with GPL-compliant software (Libre) pre-installed that actually does the job, masquerading as 'yet another mass-volume product' and beating the (GPL-violating) competition on price, convenience and usefulness."

Leighton has been at this game for nearly eight years. "I started contacting companies to get the source code of Linux phones - the Shanghai-based E28 smartphone, for example - back in about 2004," he says.

"It was a complete failure. I just had to let the GPL violations go. Instead I focused on reverse-engineering HTC's smartphones. Then Android came along, some years later, and the situation has clearly got worse, not better."

But there are some upsides to the plethora of Android devices out in the market. "At least the cost of hardware came tumbling down. However, because of Android and because of the endemic GPL violations surrounding Android, this fantastic hardware, which could potentially be used for so much more than it is, is basically stuck in dead-end roles such as 'browsing uh few web pagiz', 'wotchin uh film' and 'playing a few gamez like angry burds'."

Leighton has had some interesting early experiences trying to achieve his goal, learning through his own mistakes. "As the very first experimental ARM11 (non-x86) Linux-based (non-Android), laptop (non-tablet) hardware began to make its way out of China-based R&D companies, we reached out to them. The first was the Chitech CT-PC89E which turned out to be a complete nightmare, but an important learning curve."

"Over the course of several months, and after 18 months of thinking about what the hell went wrong, empirical evidence tends to suggest that the development of the CT-PC89E was PRC Government-funded, and was supposed to be used for monitoring of PRC citizens, in a hardware-locked fashion, running an ARM-based PRC-Government-funded port of Red Flag Linux."

Leighton says that he was "naively" intending to sell this ARM-based laptop in Europe and asked for versions of the laptop that would support European-based EDGE/3G modems. All that he was offered were China Telecom WCDMA modems that would only work in China.

Since source code could not be obtained, he took recourse to reverse-engineering. "We reverse-engineered the Linux kernel (discovering some very poorly-designed 'security' measures along the way), installed Debian on it, and an associate of ours took it along to their office and presented one of their machines running Debian/Lenny to them. They went extremely quiet.

"The poor girls at the Chitech factory in China, who have absolutely no software engineers but just 'make hardware', were so scared of what they learned, through us, that they pulled the product from their portfolio. We were the first - and last - people to ever order samples. That was over two years ago, now."

Leighton was not put off, however, and persisted in trying to make headway. Next we decided that this was a ridiculous situation, and began a process of contacting more than 200 factories in China to find one that was willing to do a deal. Two years later, we found one. It actually took going over to China and having face-to-face meetings with over 30 companies even to find that one factory."

His deal with the factory basically boils down to "we won't charge you for software engineering if you won't charge us for hardware engineering".

"As these factories often have to pay large sums of cash upfront for BSPs (board support packages) and then have to also pay to have them customised so that the factory at least has 'some' unique selling point and they 'still' end up with a GPL-violating binary-only firmware blob, it's a good deal for them," he says.

The problems Leighton has faced make for interesting reading - though they were anything but interesting at the time when he encountered them.

"We've bought samples from factories, shipped some of them to potential clients, requested the GPL source code and been denied access to it, in direct violation of the GPL," he says. "Often we were told that we had to place orders for 20,000 units in order to be given the source code; we told them absolutely not, why the hell would we place such a massive order for an untested product that didn't do the job that the client needed? In the cases where product was shipped to potential clients prior to non-receipt of the GPL source code, this was incredibly embarrassing for us."

What he has learned is that there is a long chain of people involved, with communication breakdowns and GPL violations in some cases beginning right at the start of the chain.

"The SoC (system on a chip) manufacturer provides a reference design including a BSP. The reference design is bought by original design manufacturers (ODMs), usually under NDA (which is the first GPL violation). The ODMs license their modifications to factories and give them binary-only distributions, a second GPL violation.

"The factories have absolutely no software engineers. They do not even know what source code is, let alone what an 'Apache' (licence) or a 'GPL' is. The factories sell product to importers; they in turn sell to wholesalers who sell to retailers and from there it is sold to end-users."

Leighton says it is absolute hell to chase a GPL violation back through this chain, fighting ignorance and arrogance across international boundaries every step of the way. "After trying to be patient with this process, several times, we have concluded that it is a complete waste of time to pursue GPL violations just to do a deal, selling hardware product that is GPL-compliant: it's too late by then."

Instead, he has decided to do things a different way. "We are looking to work with the factories and with the SoC vendors, being involved right down the chain, keeping software (Libre) developers involved and informed along the way as well, such that the products, when they reach the shelves in Europe for example, are fully GPL-compliant before they even get there.

"That involves finding a SoC company, a factory and software (Libre) developers who will trust us, as well as finding a hypermarket retail store in Europe that will trust us!"

Despite all these issues, light is visible at the end of the tunnel. "We're at a critical phase where we've managed to convince our first China-based factory of the value of a 'we won't charge you for software engineering time if you won't charge us for hardware engineering time' deal. The CPU that we've found is an ARM Cortex A8, it runs at up to 1.5ghz, it's an absolute corker, and it's only $7 in mass-volume. That means that a PCB that's equivalent to the Raspberry Pi in size and features could be manufactured for a whopping 40 per cent less money - only around $15 instead of $25, and yet it would be at least 3 times faster than the Raspberry Pi (which uses only a 700mhz ARM11)," Leighton says.

"We have the full support of the SoC fabless semiconductor company, Allwinner: they've given us full access to the GPL source code and the complete BSP; from a small-scale series of announcements (we've kept it to the debian-arm mailing list so far) we have more than 30 software (Libre) developers interested in buying first alphas of the 'bare-bones' EOMA-PCMCIA-compliant CPU card using Allwinner's CPU card."

While Rhombus Tech's first product will be just a credit-card-sized PCMCIA CPU card that can run as a USB-OTG-powered computer, Leighton says that, provided there are sufficient advance orders, "for a 10-inch laptop, with Android, we're looking at mass-volume pricing of around £90, retail, in the UK (and about £125 for a 12in one). For a 7-inch tablet (with the lower-quality but lower-priced resistive touch screen), we're looking at around £50 retail."

He says the only reason this is achievable is because there was no £250,000 to £500,000 up-front cost on development of the product - not on the cost of the hardware, and not on the cost of the software. The products will all be fully GPL-compliant.

"What's even better is that when a new, or faster, or cheaper (or all three) CPU comes along, then rather than force people to throw away the entire device, we will be in a position to pay a factory to get a
new EOMA-PCMCIA-compliant CPU card out in record time, and then just sell that through the same channels, as a user-installable 'upgrade' to their 'existing' laptop, tablet, desktop, internet TV, whatever it
is that's been designed to take EOMA-PCMCIA-compliant CPU cards at the time.

"With the embedded computing market moving so rapidly, we want to give both factories and users the opportunity to keep up-to-date without feeling guilty about land-fill. And, the GPL compliance and involvement of the free software community means that the devices will always be 'unlocked', and will serve both their original purpose as well as being a low-cost open educational and R&D platform."

Rhombus Tech has just five people involved, all operating on a commissions-only basis. The relationships between the five go way back, with the company being set up just two years ago.


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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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