This update is about being in Shenzhen for the past few days, during their October National Holiday. In summary, I know now why it's been so damn difficult to get anything done from outside of China: it's the incredibly poor internet access.
Imagine there are a hundred copies of the exact same USB connector, being sold by a hundred separate vendors, all of them stacked up in a hundred ten story buildings. Now apply that to half a million different components. Put them all in one place and give them - all of them - inter-continental and local internet connectivity that might have been acceptable in, say, 1996. On top of that, put them right next door to two regions (Taiwan and HK) whose internet bandwidth (and Gross National Product) is at the top of the respective leaderboards. On top of that, both of those regions speak Chinese. So whilst the race inside China is to the lowest possible price due to the sheer overwhelming number of suppliers (so many that it's nigh-on impossible to find even one component), the race outside of China is to exploit those lower prices by acting as a gateway to the rest of the world.
I used to wonder why I could not find any information on vendors from outside of China. I used to wonder why their web sites contained virtually no information: no data-sheets, nothing but the most cursory of five page, static, introductory sites for a company that does tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly turnover. It's because access to their internet - even just to upload some data-sheets to a web site - is ridiculously slow. For example, Frida invited me to visit their factory. It was fascinating, dressing up in a blue anti-static cleanroom suit, watching one of their many $250,000 USD pieces of equipment bond the driver ICs directly onto the LCD panels at a rate of about one every two seconds on one floor of their 5,000 sq.m factory. They're extremely hard-working and dedicated (Marco, the boss, is at the factory from 8am to 10pm, six days a week), they make really good products that go into well-known automobiles due to the lower cost and higher quality and yet they are not well-known because access to their in-country web site is ridiculously slow and it's not their area of expertise.
And this is just one company! - there are tens of thousands more companies in Shenzhen in exactly the same position.
Those enterprising people who try to set up Alibaba or Alibaba-like sites (putting up hundreds of copies of exactly the same product) really don't help. I'll have to think about how to deal with this. For now, realistically, it looks like going over to Shenzhen and actually being on the ground in Huaqiang Road is about the only way.
On Tuesday I crossed over from HK into Shenzhen at the LuoHu border crossing, the busiest point. I had arranged to meet Mike one station down on the Metro. With my phone (with its China Unicom dual-HK+CN telephone numbers in one of the dual-sim slots) being reluctant to kick over to the China cell-towers, I was out of touch with Mike for a while, so I was a little surprised when someone approached me and said, "Hi! I'm Mike!" Nevertheless, he was very enthusiastic, so off we went.
He took me into one of the high-rise shopping malls on the fourth of the twenty floors of the building (this fact being quite important to note, later). After threading our way through gaudy, but very small shops we sat down in one that sold handbags and other paraphernalia. As it so happened, I was actually looking for a suitable replacement for the bum-bag that I have used for ten years, as well as a bigger wallet. Now, what I was presented with was a stack of catalogues, each an inch thick. After flipping extremely quickly (as I do) through them, I found what I wanted, pointed to some, and said "these one". Implicitly, I had already understood that one of the floors above must contain huge stocks of the items listed on these pages. The same process was repeated for a new pair of glasses ("Mike's" shop, opposite - it even said so on his business card) as the ones that I had been wearing were $5 USD plus $6 shipping from HK and they're very badly damaged.
This process, I was to discover, is exactly how Huaqiang Road operates -just with much much smaller booths, stacked much, much higher and wider than even the tourist trap next to LuoHu Station, occupying the entire building and then replicated throughout the entire Futian District, and with much much larger factories, sufficiently large that they have to be located in the surrounding Districts several tens of kilometres away. If they've got something actually on-site under the counter (available space: about 1 sq metre) or on the shelves (available space: about 10 sq metres and that's a big booth, it's because it's one of the top-selling items across the whole of the electronics Industry. I watched many of the staff actually clamber over the counter in order to get in and out of the booth. The glass on the counter is therefore at least 9 mm thick and reinforced.
Speaking to various booth owners (often limited to words like “PDF" and aided and assisted by a calculator), I had to sift through small plastic trays (brought out from under the glass) containing a hundred, maybe a thousand different USB connectors until I found one that was similar enough to what was really needed. By making drawings and using a process of elimination that took about ten minutes per connector, it became possible to track down the required part. Then I was able to ask them to show me the PDF, and for them to email it to me. More misunderstandings ensued, which were gradually overcome.
Now all I have to do is analyse the PDFs and see if they match up to the parts I've already designed the PCBs around. If they don’t, I can always go back to the vendor until they get bored of dealing with me, and if they get bored of dealing with me there are a hundred more booths I can go to. This wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but it's pretty much exactly what I've been doing for the past four years, except now the communications turn-around is a few minutes instead of twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Given that the same level of miscommunication occurs over that forty-eight hour, round-trip delay, this could be said to be an improvement.
ICs, inductors, crystals, and capacitors, on the other hand, are a radically different matter, because they have unique part numbers. I found a very small booth approximately 1.2 metres wide called Jihang Electronics. I wrote out a list of part numbers (over thirty in total) and they had all but two of them in stock, which is staggering. The owner had clearly memorised the entire stock of the company whereas the assistant had to use the computer to do a spreadsheet lookup. What’s amazing is they have no web site at all.
Another thing I've noticed is that Chinese vendors are clearly unnerved about dealing with a Westerner. I need to put them in touch with Mike (from the factory), so he can help reassure them. They're going to be an invaluable resource: they have over 99% of the ICs and discrete components needed for the Micro-Desktop and the three 15.6 in, Laptop PCBs.
Everybody's business cards have a QQ account. Everybody has a smartphone. As in, everybody. As in, I stand out not by virtue of being 6 ft. 1 in. tall, with light skin, fair hair, and big steel toe-capped boots. No, I stand out because I'm not holding a 5 in, flashy-device in front of me like a talisman with a tether on it leading to my ear. I bought my dual-sim "Senior's Phone" because I want something that only does phone calls and SMS (and then was delighted to find that it has a functioning camera) yet I have encountered even people clearly aged 70 years old or above playing tetris-like games on these "magic talismans".
As might therefore be imagined, I get a lot of laughs from people when I show them my phone, as well as a lot of respect for not succumbing to the "always on" culture. Honestly, though, it's inconvenient. I could actually really do with a device that was a bit bigger, and had some sort of data link. But it will be a cold day in hell before I go and buy something like that from a mass-volume manufacturer. I've had it with them. I've had it with the GPL violations, I've had it with the throw-away culture and the assumptions that they can dictate what software should be on my device, that I paid for. So. Marco has sent me the data sheet for the 10.1in. 1280x800 LCD that Frida makes. He’s going to track down a reasonably-priced matching CTP for me. One of the next EOMA68 designs is going to be a 10.1 in. tablet that converts to a laptop.
At some point, somebody took a picture of me. Instinctively, I asked them if it was going onto Facebook. Their response was NO. This really surprised me: the vehemence with which a 22-year-old had responded to the mentioning of Facebook. Now, here in the West we assume that Facebook has no presence because it's restricted by the Chinese Government or something. The truth is: Chinese Citizens reject Facebook. They have their own social communications systems that have been developed in-country by their own enterprising citizens: We-Chat, QQ and others. China is big enough (heck, Shenzhen alone is 11 million people) to have its own "social network effect”. Mark Zuckerberg, they're sending you a clear message: "You're not welcome here."
The only reason I can get access to gmail is through my VPN. The only way I can get access to Google is through http://google.com.hk - if I go to the default http://google.com it's redirected to the United Arab Emirates http://google.ae which is beyond useless. Youtube bandwidth is around 5k/sec. Google Maps is out of the question.
I knew there was a reason why I set everything up to use git repositories. I was kinda anticipating that Internet connectivity would be an issue. I can still edit the rhombus-tech wiki offline and then do a "git pull" and "git push" exchange when it's convenient (and if it fails, I can try again later). It appears this kind of setup is more critical than I realised. When I have time I will investigate http://ipfs.io more thoroughly, to see if it can be properly integrated with my current working practices, which revolve primarily around git. IPFS looks like it's what I imagined git should really have as a back-end, but when I talk to people about making git truly distributed, they look genuinely puzzled and say “but git already is distributed.” Well, no, it's not: git relies on centralized servers and it relies on central DNS resolution. I was therefore delighted to find that someone has, in the past few years, implemented "gittorrent". However, as I'm beginning to realize, gittorrent alone isn't enough.
If you ever wondered why you can't find anything in China, it’s because you have to actually be here, on the ground. Even Digikey, Farnell, Mouser etc. could be said to be exploiting (or capitalising on) the over-abundance / over-production / over-crowding of Shenzhen in exactly the same way that HK and Taiwan are doing. If you're thinking of even buying cheap products from here (because you believe that the lower prices of production on some Reference Design or already-mass-produced item will somehow mean that you be able to have it customized), you’re going to be disappointed. They don't have the resources, and it's not (collectively) their primary focus anyway. There does exist a path through this maze: you just have to be either prepared to take several years going through it (if you are outside of China), or you have to have some contact(s) here who truly understand what it is that you want to do.
Best of all, get over here and experience it for yourself. Buy Bunnie Huang's book. Just bear in mind that Hong Kong - the main and most convenient crossing-point into Shenzhen - is extraordinarily expensive. It's on a totally different economic level from anywhere else in the world. A small apartment in the remote areas of HK is a minimum of $2,500 USD per month, with $5,000 a month not being unreasonable. Hostels and remote hotels can be around $50 per night and that's considered cheap.