Over the years there’s been quite a few innovative laptop projects out there, including from mass-volume suppliers: a bamboo laptop, a recycleable one, an engineer’s laptop, and many more. In this update I’d like to go over them all as a way to distinguish the EOMA68 Laptop Housing, as well as illustrate how this project has learned from them all.
Update 20 July 2016: It’s been kindly pointed out to us that the purpose of this update is not clear. The purpose of the update was believed by the person who contacted us to be a “success / fail comparison” that would make this team’s efforts “look better,” and, most unfortunately, it was perceived that we were attempting to openly and personally criticise the teams who have in some way “failed” - to somehow push others down so that we can be pushed up. Whilst we appreciate that such strategies are commonly used, they are extremely unethical and we have absolutely no interest whatsoever in using unethical means to achieve ethical ends (because it is literally impossible to do so).
So it is most certainly not the case that we are attempting to use other’s failure as a self-serving “boost” method, even if failure could be considered to be a bad thing (which it is not, if we see it as a “learning experience on how to do better next time”). The purpose of this update is as a comparative and comprehensive learning exercise for others and also as a reminder to ourselves to remain true to the ethical business model chosen for the development of this project. It is a case study of a wide range of historical and current laptop development teams, to analyse and review their strategy for the degree of stated or implied “open-ness” of their development process in relation to the hardware.
Some of the laptops are definitely and clearly following a “closed” strategy, others have stated explicitly (or implicitly) that they are following an “open” strategy, for example by using the word “open” in the name of the product that they are developing. Where appropriate, discrepancies between the use of the word “open” and the available evidence are therefore highlighted in particular, so that people considering sponsoring those that are still running can make a properly informed decision. Additionally, if there are any results (sales or rewards), those are highlighted too, and an analysis is made as to the effectiveness of the sales results vs the team’s initial strategy and commitment to “open-ness” at the hardware level.
Everything from Dell, HP, Asus, Acer, Samsung, and Sony: these range from the powerful to the budget. At their heart they’re “designed for manufacture” (not for maintenance or repair). They’re designed with planned obscelescense in mind, so that you will continue to buy them year-on-year. If it wasn’t for the operating system which Microsoft is well-known for threatening companies if they don’t provide it pre-installed, the more powerful laptops would stand a good chance of remaining in useful service for several years until they suffered major component failure. The budget machines on the other hand are sufficiently cheap that their expected useful lifetime is dramatically reduced, not just in terms of relevance due to software scope-creep but also due to cheaper internal components that are pushed to the limit of thermal capacity.
Many of these laptops - most notably those from IBM / Lenovo - actually have DRM-locking built-in to the BIOS to prevent people from replacing or upgrading key critical components. With the introduction of processor-level DRM built-in, some laptops (those with NVidia Tegra processors most notably) are so locked down that upgrading or replacing the OS is utterly impossible, even if the entire source code were to be reverse-engineered. The possibility of a manufacturer actually deciding to SHUT DOWN such laptops is not unthinkable. They literally have total control over the hardware that you merely think you own and paid for. If this sounds stupid and ridiculous, bear in mind that Apple was asked by the FBI to create a custom-version of its OS (which, like Microsoft, they could technically do at any time by leveraging the “Updates” feature), and that they can irrevocably destroy your own personal wholly-owned copyrighted original works.
In short, whilst we can applaud the standard manufacturers for the amazing efficiency with which they have produced these machines and brought them to us within affordable budgets, they are at heart totally unethically designed. We support these companies only because there are no other choices, as there really has not been any true innovation in over twenty five years.
Update 18 July 2016: A reader kindly pointed out this one. Revolv home automation computers have already been shut down. Summary: Google (or Alphabet) buys Nest. Nest buys competitor Revolv. They announce they will over-the-air-brick all $300-a-piece Revolv home automation hubs in May 2016. Customers are left to buy something else (if they aren’t already fed up).
The Asus Bamboo range seems to have made the headlines around 2007 and again in 2010, so it is surprising as to why this laptop is not more widely adopted or in use. Perhaps it is because, at its core, the Asus Bamboo Laptop may be viewed as just “an expensive Standard Laptop” with bamboo being added as a marketing gimmick rather than as part of a wholly ethical design strategy.
However, thanks to Asus, the idea of using bamboo (aside from first being mentioned in William Gibson’s book “Idoru” - the Sandbenders laptop) becomes a more mainstream concept.
The OpenBook was an attempt by VIA to follow the inspiration of the OpenMoko: to follow “Open Source” principles. It didn’t take off. The casework Reference Designs are however still available under a Creative Commons License.
Again, like the Asus Bamboo range, we can only speculate that it just doesn’t help us to have only the casework being made available under Creative Commons Licenses if it still requires $USD 100,000 to make the injection-molds based off of those designs, and worse, even if that work were carried out, the key part - the laptop’s internals like the PCB - are not upgradeable and cost an additional $100,000 to design.
The Skytone Alpha 400 was an awesome micro-laptop that inspired a range of other devices due to its startlingly-low cost. When most laptops cost $500+ at the time, this one was $130. It was re-branded over 35 different times and sold worldwide, but ultimately was a huge disappointment to all but a very small number of people who owned one. The processor, from Ingenic, was a QFP-176 and was incredibly low cost, hence the reason for its deployment in such amazing budget devices.
If this micro-laptop had come out ten years earlier, it would have been absolutely amazing. It just wasn’t powerful enough, though did allow Ingenic to sell more than 25 million processors worldwide (mostly in China) and kick-started their business in a sustainable way.
The Ben Nanonote used the same Ingenic processor as the Skytone Alpha 400 and was a spin-off from an existing device. It was developed as an open hardware project when the concept of open hardware was very obscure and not well-known.
The AlwaysInnovating Touchbook really was innovative, and was a precursor to the various tablets with keyboard dock that are prevalent today. It was undoubtedly a world-first, ahead of its time, including an extra battery in the keyboard dock. However, all that innovation quickly faded (ironically) such that very few people now remember it, and why? Because a 720 MHz single-core ARM Cortex A8 as the main processor is no longer relevant, especially given that TI charge such a lot for it when things like the Allwinner A13 and now the R8 are around the $3 mark.
A brilliant startlingly prescient device, with a price-tag of $300+, let down by one small component (which unfortunately happens to be the processor). If it had been a modular, upgradeable design, their shop might still be open for business today.
The Bloom Laptop was the first real ecologically designed concept laptop. Two professors and a class full of students were shocked and appalled to find that it had taken them three hours to disassemble a laptop into its 120 constituent parts without damaging anything, and set about designing something that could be disassembled in minutes, primarily so that its constituent parts could be disposed of in landfill and/or recycled in a more eco-conscious way.
The project was part of a course on learning mechanical design, rather than being something that was actually intended to be put into mass-production. On investigating the actual design carefully, it was found that the key strategy behind making it easy to disassemble was to use extremely fine tolerances (micro-meter accuracy) on the plastic “slot-in” parts, meaning that during mass-volume manufacturing such extremely fine and necessary tolerances would be unlikely to be realistically met (especially as the tooling wears out), and the laptop’s assemblies would, having virtually no screws, pretty much fall apart or not slot together in the first place (jamming).
The most useful aspect of this study was in making us keenly aware of the shocking way in which standard laptops are designed.
The OpenPandora grew from the modding handheld gaming community’s desire to have a handheld games console that they themselves actually wanted. The simple question was raised, “If there was a handheld that you actually wanted to buy, what specifications would it have?” and from this the overwhelming number of responses allowed them to reach, through a series of trials and tribulations which were mostly public and well-documented, a final release and delivery phase, very very late and so overbudget that the units had to be hand-assembled and tested by volunteers in a garage.
Crucially, though, the delays didn’t matter and were part of the fun and the experience of backing the project, because the team acted transparently and kept people informed of the creative ways in which they ultimately were able to deliver as promised.
The lessons from this project are completely invaluable: most notably that operating in the public eye allows experts from a huge range of backgrounds, and non-technical-experts well-versed in plain common sense, to point out flaws and pitfalls. Where nobody could have foreseen the mistakes, the exercise proves to be useful documentation to anyone wishing to achieve something similar.
Update 18 July 2016: Several people have kindly pointed out that the Pyra Handheld games console is an update of Open Pandora, which is great to see as it means that this community has clearly reached critical mass with a sustainable business model. The only other type of open hardware project to achieve this is the Arduino series, which has a far lower technical threshold (and price point). For this community-driven handheld gaming community to reach self-sustaining financial status with such a high technical barrier is a huge call for celebration.
The Bunnie Studios Novena Laptop was at its heart something that Bunnie himself wanted: an engineering tool. It was a design exercise where he freely admitted that he didn’t want a laptop that was designed by anyone else, he was getting fed up with mass-volume designs, and wanted to make something for himself. When he’d posted about this, the number of people who asked him if they could have one was sufficiently overwhelming that in the end he capitulated and set it up on Crowd Supply for people to fund.
Whilst it was definitely designed to be “open hardware” - the full schematics and PCB CAD files may be found online - it was definitely not intended for mass-production. At around $2,000 for the base, full laptop model, it was definitely a niche market product.
The pi-top was marketed as an “open” educational kit, promised to have schematics available, promised to have the CAD files made available, and many other promises which have not materialised. A side-by-side comparison exercise was at one point carried out against the EOMA68 Laptop Housing. There was only one real “plus” for the pi-top: the raw processing speed of the currently available host board (when compared to the current EOMA68-A20 Computer Card), and, in retrospect, the fact that there is enough internal space to fit experiments inside it. However that extra space has a massive penalty: the pi-top’s case is almost an inch and a half thick when the lid is closed.
We can definitely conclude that the pi-top was not run as an open hardware project, but more than that the team has broken their promises to backers, to provide CAD files so that people can improve and modify their devices.
The Italian, community-driven PowerPC Open Hardware Laptop seems to be a really dedicated team that are clearly having fun exploring and documenting the set of tasks needed. It looks both interesting and ambitious, and we can only wish them well and look forward to them continuing to explore, learn, and document the process of bringing open hardware to life.
The Vero Apparatus ARM64 Laptop is a community-driven effort to create a small production-run, high-end PCB based around the AMD multi-core ARM64 “Opteron 1100” processor announced in January of 2014. For casework and internals the idea is to obtain older IBM Thinkpad laptops and to strip them of components and design the PCB to fit.
Other than the wiki, there does not appear to be much information publicly available about this project: it is not possible to create a wiki account in order to help edit the wiki, and there does not appear to be a mailing list to review archived discussions, so it is not possible to interact with them and provide any advice, nor even find out who is involved so that sponsorship or donations can be offered!
We therefore see, in direct contrast to the PowerPC Notebook, no real evidence of it being an “open” laptop, at all, despite knowing (privately) that the team behind it are extremely competent, very hardworking, and dedicated individuals who have worked for decades to bring us a stable and extremely valuable GNU/Linux distribution that inspires others the world over. The contrast is… puzzling.
Update 20 July 2016: This is the section where the above paragraphs were perceived as being highly and personally critical of the extremely competent and dedicated software developers who are working on this laptop design. The paragraphs above are NOT intended as personal criticism, as that would be totally unethical. There isn’t even a single personal pronoun used so this clearly cannot be true. What the above paragraphs are intended to highlight is that there is a very real discrepancy between the use of the word “open” in the name of the actual laptop, which may lead people to believe that certain criteria will be met (mailing lists, forums, schematics, progress reports, an open wiki and so on) vs the actual development process which currently shows no evidence of being open in the way that is implied by the name, “Open Laptop.” We appreciate however that this team is very busy, and that they are at an early phase. We therefore invite them to contact us and offer them an opportunity to add information to this page. However, as their wiki page does not have any contact details, if anybody knows how to reach them, please do pass on this offer, which remains open indefinitely.
The Phonebloks project requires a special mention, which will be explored a bit more in-depth in another update. Dave Hakkens, who inspired millions of people to get onto social media and make their voices heard, that they really wanted a modular smartphone they could upgrade and customise as their needs changed, is pretty pissed off with Google. However with the experience that comes from having closely watched technological development for nearly three decades, it is not a surprise - at all - to read Dave’s conclusions and words, but Dave did not - does not - have the technical background or knowledge to be able to make the assessment that I published almost immediately when I saw Project Ara and began investigating it in-depth.
Some of the dangers associated with Project Ara are discussed in the Eco computing white paper but will be covered specially in a later update. Summary: Ara spells “bad news”, and non-technical people who were expecting Google to make good on their promises are beginning to notice, and to express their anger at being betrayed. Again.
Chris Robinson of N-O-D-E.net created a set of instructions to make a micro-laptop recently. It’s noteworthy for its innovation, but also to highlight that, compared to EOMA68, a perfectly good credit-card-sized computer had to be destroyed with wire cutters so as to get the PCB down to under 4mm in height. With EOMA68 already being in a credit-card-sized case and already in a robust 5 mm high metal housing, there would be no need for such heavy and irreversible modification. An EOMA68 Computer Card could be used afterwards in other projects, and transferred from housing to housing.
It is however extremely good to see the proliferation of such ideas, encouraging people to innovate and create.
From this list, we can see, historically, where the inspiration for the EOMA68 Laptop Housing comes from, and what issues the strategy is addressing.
In short, it’s designed around ethical principles which no other product family is really tackling. As always, with these things, however: this is a crowdfunding campaign. It succeeds based on everybody’s efforts. If you believe strongly enough that you’d like to take responsibility for changing the way that our electronic devices are made and used, please back this project and spread the word to like-minded people.