Posts Tagged Open Hardware

Hardware is Hard, haven’t we learned that yet?

There is a great post on the website The Street with Peter Semmelhack of Bug Labs, on why hardware is hard. I’ll wait here while you go read it…. Disclaimer: I worked for Bug Labs on ’09-’10. I dig Peter’s vision and experience.

Bug Labs Hardware Engineering an adventure for 2013 that played out around 2007 to 2011, part of which I was there for the last two years of. At the time, their software system was growing well and with the industry, while the Hardware/Firmware development was, frankly, a black-hole of engineering time suck.

For the time I was there, things were a bit rocky, and the realization the hardware vision was nigh impossible was a tough vision change to make. Pluggable complex engineering is absurdly hard, for engineering reasons I’ll get into below. Peter did a great job of herding the company onto a new path, It’s great to see Bug has pivoted to a place where it vision is technically possible, and is having great success.

Given that, It was a surprise to me this month to read about Project Aria and PhoneBlox. Two admirable projects that sound great as YouTube videos, but projects that are none the less destine to a die via death-by-a-million-solder-burns. It was pretty sad to see that hubris (Motorola) and lack of domain knowledge (PhoneBlox) leading well intentioned people down a rocky road.

A road to a black-hole that other companies, like Bug Labs and Open Moko, had already mapped out with giant warning signs and ‘Black Hole Ahead’ articles sharing their traumatic experience.

I could write a whole detailed post on each of the red-flags on these projects, and how it overlaps with the insurmountable challenges of Bug Labs Hardware. but I’m going to stick to bullet-points unless I get some reader-request to elaborate on some of these.

  • To ‘plug together’ a device of phone complexity, you need decades of engineering, or 2-4 years of education. These won’t be accessible outside of trained engineers, or a huge engineering NRE.
  • Ruggidizing core components while maintaining speed is impossible.The faster, hotter, and smarter you make electronics, the more finicky they are.
  • If you do ruggidize them, you need slower plug-friendly protocols which are 2 orders of magnitude too slow for modern expectations.
  • Delay: The open phone tech will always be 6 to 24 months behind the advertised *buy now, we ship next month* phones.
  • People pay a lot *not* to assemble their own PC’s. DIY PC kits and purchases are a niche of a niche, even amoung nerds and hackers. Seriously, people want to change their wallpaper and font-defaults, not their RAM or front-side-bus.

We’ve been down this road, in projects by Open Moko. Bug Labs, and more. The ‘fully configurable’ system is going to be crash-tastic. It’s great PR, it’s shit engineering.
Imagine the phone as a car-level complexity devices. Changing out the dashboard, or some plastics. or adding a spoiler to a car? Sure, a great idea. Changing out the engine, or suspension, or powertrain really takes a mechanic, or a car so de-tuned it’s worthless on a highway (which is why I loved my Vespa ET3). A few hours of thinking would make it clear the fully-pluggable system is a daydream.

I have more hope for Jolla, built by thoughtful engineers. The ‘plugable’ modules are nice-to-have add-ons and external to the core system. They are a bit isolated, and they are not core components of operation. It’s much more likely to succeed, and they can use isolation circuits and ‘firewall’ the plug-system to a few external pins/ports, rather than ruggidizing a lot of internal connections and parts.

If you want me to expand on any bullet-points, just drop a note in the comments, and I’d be glad to rant on in detail why those are such problems.

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Invisible Hand of the Market

An article at The Register on got me thinking about economics of software infrastructure. Working at an Open Source Hardware company, this intersects my life, and has a bit to do with my professional options in the future. But first some intro economics, for those that want some background.

Part of Economics 101 goes something like this “If you sell hot dogs, you want to help make hot-dog buns cheaper. That way, more people have money to spend on hotdogs!” Or, in other words “Complementary Goods is a good with a negative cross elasticity demand curve.” Which is just a fancy of saying, when buns get cheaper, more folks buy hotdogs.

This math gets really weird when you start to get into software. Read the rest of this entry »

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