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OpenMoko Layoffs Lead to New Open Hardware Venture

OpenMoko’s aborted effort to create an open-source-run cellphone has given birth to a new venture that aims to unlock the computing potential in everyday things to tinkerers, open source fans, and developers alike.

Qi Hardware will be an open source development platform enabling value added resellers and hobbyists to take existing hardware devices apart and customize them for niche markets or personal use, explained President Stephen Mosher, OpenMoko’s former vice president of marketing. Its expertise, acquired at OpenMoko, is knowing how to hack open devices properly and which devices have the most development potential for specialized vertical markets, he said.

“Our goal is open consumer electronics,” said Mosher, who formed the San Francisco company with five others laid off by OpenMoko last spring plus two volunteers. “While Intel looks at everyday devices and asks how it can add a processor and Microsoft asks how it can add an operating system, we ask how we can open a device with the belief that, if we can open it, there will be a market.”

While OpenMoko tried to develop its own product, Mosher believes Qi’s approach of hacking existing, stable hardware devices will be faster, cheaper and easier to accomplish. Unlike OpenMoko, Qi is not starting with a phone, a daunting target, and Qi is only opening devices and providing low-level code, i.e., a stable working kernel and device drivers, and leaving developers to do the rest, he said.

Named after a Chinese term for spirit or life force, Qi’s target is open source dreamers, who will buy open source devices because they believe in the vision, and gadgeteers who buy devices for the fun of taking them apart and seeing how they work, said Mosher, who believes these two groups are big enough to fund a company.

Qi Hardware’s first product will be the NanoNote, a Linux-run mini computer the size of a cellphone with a screen, processor, keyboard, USB port and headphones but no radio frequency, Mosher said. To be launched this fall, the NanoNote’s potential uses could include a nano-sized laptop, video or music player, photos or specialized portable personal or business uses. Future versions will add more hardware capabilities such as radio frequency and GPS in line with a product roadmap which will enable developers to build applications and add connectivity, he said. This, in turn, will open new markets, he added.

Unlike OpenMoko, however, Qi will open up the software and hardware roadmap to its developer community, giving volunteers and paid staff a voice in product direction, even though discussion is certain to generate dissent, Mosher said. The roadmap will include telephony, either via peripheral support or product integration, but not within the first nine months, he said.

“Democratizing hardware design is a big challenge but I know it invigorates the community,” Mosher said. “They desperately want to be heard. We want to be a pillar of social engineering about our roadmap and what we sell.”

After the first NanoNote release, Qi will open the schematics and bill of materials, which will enable developers to use Qi’s open tools and, in effect, design the next version themselves, he added.

Another difference is that Qi will start with one simple device (instead of a complex phone), make incremental improvements, ship it and then move on to something else to avoid scattering its resources among multiple projects, he said.

“This a more methodical approach,” said Mosher, who formerly worked in engineering design with Northrop Aircraft and, later, Creative Labs. “I know it works.”

In addition, Qi is supporting a community effort to complete OpenMoko’s aborted redesign of its Freerunner cellphone, which OpenMoko then open-sourced, he said.

Louis Montagne, CEO of Bearstech, a French company that is evolving into a Web marketplace for developers creating open source hardware prototypes, was in San Francisco recently to discuss strengthening his relationship with Mosher’s new company.

“Steve’s in a good, emerging line of business of open source hardware that will be a part of the future, a future of the Internet of things with everything in the house connected to the Internet,” Montagne said.

Jon “maddog” Hall, executive director of Linux International, a non-profit organization of computer vendors that promotes Linux, said the problem of proprietary hardware and software in electronics affects every market, creating needless obsolescence when viruses, bugs, kernel changes or loss of manufacturing support makes otherwise usable products inoperable. To fix a broken device, however, all software and all hardware components must be open, which is difficult since the parts often are made by different vendors, he said.

Mosher has an opportunity to go to vendors, obtain programming interfaces under non-disclosure agreements that expire with product ship dates, and end up with open code that can be customized for other purposes, Hall said. In other cases, he could help the vendor with engineering and documentation issues, and get access to the programming interfaces in return, he said. The end result is the extension of an open platform, he said.

Qi could make money selling its open hardware and software to value added resellers, and additional revenue for engineering modifications, Hall said. The federal government also might be very interested in hiring Qi to open a hardware device which it can modify in secret for its own purposes, he added.

An open source phone could open up other opportunities for Qi to make modifications that small telephony companies can, in turn, market to their customers, he added.

“I think Qi will lead to a whole bunch of things that current exist being used in new and interesting ways, without limitation by what the original manufacturer intended,” Hall said. “Companies could hire someone to change the code (to meet a specific business need) and then it becomes a financial decision of how much they are willing to pay vs. how much it is worth to them as a business.”

 

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