Back in 2016, I wrote a blog piece about modular mobile devices. Sadly, pretty much all of the projects I mentioned at the time got canned. Those that survive tend to be the least modular, like the Fairphone, which is repairable, but but not modular in the sense that Project ARA was intended to be. When I attended the 2018 Platform Cooperative conference in Hong Kong, there was a lot of talk about ways of making computer hardware more available to smaller companies, allowing them to develop their own devices. I still like the idea of allowing the end user to pop components in and out of their devides like lego blocks, for all the reasons I mentioned in that 2016 piece. Maybe cooperatively owned device makers could be the way to make it happen?

In the meantime, if there’s anyone out there looking for an open hardware project, here’s a mobile device design you’d have at least one customer for. The basic idea is a tablet mainly used for offline media consumption - reading books, listening to podcasts - but can also be used for casual communication, when there is a WiFi connection available. All components would ideally use chipsets that can run with only free code software.

Hardware:

  • E-Ink touchscreen, the size of a small-to-medium tablet
  • replaceable SDcard for the OS
  • separate SDcard expansion slot for added storage
  • full size USB port (or smaller port with dongle) for connecting USB sticks/drives
  • WiFi (with hardware switch)
  • Bluetooth for wireless headphones, keyboards etc and for file transfer (with hardware switch)
  • standard headphone jack
  • camera and microphone for communications (with hardware switches)

Software

  • Free code touchscreen OS that is compatible with the e-ink screen and can run F-Droid and Android apps (Replicant OS?)
Filed June 29th, 2019 under open hardware, Makers

Update 2018-04-18: A new concept in the right to repair movement is the concept of “Repair Cafes“, some of which take place in existing  Makerspaces/ Hackerspaces/ FabLabs and Men’s Sheds, while others are making use of school workshops and other educational spaces.

But if you people keep repairing things, the corporations we invest in wont be able to sell as many new things

——————————————-

Today I came across a MotherBoardTV article today that really sums up just how deep the software freedom rabbit-hole goes. It reports on US farmers jailbreaking their John Deere tractors with reverse-engineered firmware. Why? In defence of their right to repair their own tractors, or take them to a local mechanic, instead of having to wait for service from an official John Deere approved service centre who could be miles away and take days to get repairs done. This may sound like something out of a dystopian science fiction story, but it’s happening right now, and it’s a classic example of why software freedom isn’t just a fringe issue for GNU/Linux geeks.

The question underlying the concept of software freedom has always been about whether we really own the things we buy (including the rights to repair, tinker, modify etc), or whether we actually only buy a license to use them, under terms that are approved by the manufacturer and subject to change by them at any time. As more and more household, commercial, and industrial equipment becomes computerized, and is connected to the internet (leading to the new buzzphrase “Internet of Things“), the answer to this question affects more and more people. Now, as farms become computerized, it’s even affecting farmers, a group for whom the freedom to tinker with and repair the many pieces of farm equipment on which they depend has traditionally been crucial to keeping their costs below their income.

The tractor-hacking farmers are just one example of a global ‘right to repair’ movement that has been gaining steam in recent years, made up of local groups involved in Makerspaces/ Hackerspaces/ FabLabs and the Men’s Sheds, advocacy organisations like Repair.org (mentioned in the tractor article), and community collaboration sites like iFixIt.com (who host repair manuals for a wide range of hardware under a CreativeCommons BY-NC-SA 3.0 license). Aside from citizens’ rights of ownership of their own belongings, the right to repair also has serious environmental sustainability implications. The Swedish government recently enacted a tax breaks scheme on repair activities to make it more economic to repair things rather than buying new ones, with the goal of encouraging people to reduce avoidable waste. This is a positive step, but it’s benefits will be limited if corporations are still allowed to erect a fortress of legal obstacles, using things like copyright law, patent law, or contract law through restrictive EULAs (End User License Agreements), to hamstring local repair and modification operating independently of their supply chain.

This may be the purpose of the infamous “as such” exception to the rule against software patents in the 2013 update of the NZ Patents Act (disclaimer: I am not not a lawyer). For example, it could be argued that embedded software in a computerized tractor is not really computer software “as such”, which means it’s possible that patent law could still be used against groups offering free code alternatives to proprietary tractor software. The most likely target for legal action, considering the commercially-orientated nature of patent law, would be local tractor mechanic businesses who use that free code software to help farmers keep their older equipment working. Patent law supposedly encourages progress in the arts and sciences. It’s truly horrifying that it could be used in such an anti-environmental and anti-competitive way, obliging farmers to buy new equipment when they don’t really need to and potentially forcing rural mechanics out of business. It’s essential that legislators and regulators make the effort to understand these the implications, and act in defence of the the right to repair.

——————————————-

This is part of an ongoing series on patents:

Patents #1: Unpatenting, Patent Pools, and Patent Prevention

Patents #2: Are They Actually Any Use At All? 

Filed March 23rd, 2017 under open hardware, Makers, free software

In 2008, after a talk by Richard Stallman, I asked him if there was any way to use patent law the same way copyleft uses copyright law, to effectively place inventions covered by existing patents into the commons. He responded by explaining to me the differences between copyright and patent law, which I already knew (having read his essay about “intellectual property“), and didn’t really answer my question. Later I discovered that one of the differences between the GNU GPL version 2 and version 3, first drafted in 2006, was a clause to ensure users and developers who fork GPLv3 code are protected from patent aggression (legal attacks by software patent holders). The Open Web Foundation (OWF), set up in 2008, also created license agreements where patent holders who freely release their technology, in this case to be incubated as open web standards, sign away any rights to sue anyone implementing that standard for patent infringement.

Today I came across an article by Nancy Cronin, on the GreenBiz website, about the Eco-Patent Commons, a way for patent holders to give their patents to the commons in a similar way, but in this case for inventions that may have environmental benefits. As with the OWF standards license, the only right effect the patent still has is stop anyone else patenting the same thing. Both these examples seem like answers to my question, a kind of patent equivalent of copyleft. When Elon Musk released the patents for Tesla Motors’ electric car charging technology, “in the spirit of the open source movement“, there was skepticism in some quarters about whether Tesla would honour its patent non-aggression pact, but also glowing reviews that the Tesla-Patent Commons builds on the idea of the Eco-Patent Commons, and in many ways improves on it.

Another form of patent protection is patent pools like the Open Invention Network (OIN) and the Medicines Patent Pool, in which groups of companies put a bunch of their patents in a pot, and make legal agreements not to sue each other over them. The downside of this is that it further increases the monopolistic power of companies that can afford armies of patent lawyers, as any company that doesn’t have any patents - either because it can’t afford them or because it conscientiously objects to them - can’t join the protection pool. One thing becomes clear from the various discussions of these patent commons and pools; the threat of patent litigation, whether from corporate ogres or patent trolls, means that patents do a lot more to stifle innovation than to support it. But what I learned from Stallman’s talk is that the best alternative to a patent is not an “open patent” but “prior art”, the publication of a detailed description of an invention before anyone can get a patent on it. As Nancy Cronin puts it in her article:

“An enabled invention disclosure (also called “defensive publication” or “technical bulletin”) is a written description of an invention that ideally has the same degree of detail as an issued patent. Therefore a well-written invention disclosure provides sufficient information to the reader to understand and use the invention.”

Inspired by Stallman’s talk, and by the Indymedia open-publishing new websites, I hit on the idea of setting up an open-publishing site where people could publish descriptions of their inventions. In 2010, I added ‘Prior Art’ as a proposed project on the Disintermedia wiki. Fortunately for me, I’m not the only person thinking along these lines. It turns out a number of sites have been set up to collate prior art, including IT-specific sites like Linux Defenders, run by OIN, and Research Disclosure, a general defensive publication sites for a print journal that started in 1960! There’s clearly no need for the Prior Art project, and I will be moving the page from ‘Proposed Projects’ to ‘Libre Research’, and then probably to the P2P Foundation wiki, where all the general research pages on the Disintermedia wiki will eventually be moved.

——————————————-

This is part of an ongoing series on patents:

Patents #2: Are They Actually Any Use At All? 

Patents #3: Farmers Become Hackers to Defend the ‘Right to Repair’ Tractors 

Filed March 25th, 2016 under open hardware, free software

Update 20 Jan, 2016: PhoneBloks is another modular phone project. This introduction is from 2013.

Update 8 Jan, 2016: TechTimes published a story on modular handhelds in November last year, which confirms that the FairPhone 2 is designed to be more modular than a conventional handheld. It also briefly mentions Project ARA, and another crowdfunded project called the PuzzlePhone. Their campaign ended in December last year, unfortunately falling far short of their ambitious funding target, but hopefully they continue with the project regardless.

Original Post

I haven’t really been onboard with the mobile revolution (handheld devices like “smartphones” and tablets), and one of my main objections has been the wastefulness of building computers that seem designed to be thrown away and replaced every couple of years. Most mobiles are not designed to last and difficult to repair; its often cheaper to buy a new device than to get one fixed. The trend towards storing user files and even personalization data “in the cloud”, rather than local storage, further reduces the motivation to repair. Even when people take really good care of their handhelds, they often become unusable after a couple of years anyway, because software development for both iThings and Androids is targeted towards newer models that exist in larger numbers.

Enter Project ARA, an initiative of Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP), a research group originally created by Motorola, but now part of the GoogleBeast. The project has created a modular handheld, in which components like screen, cameras, speakers, and batteries can be easily swapped out. This allows the average user to both repair and upgrades their own device, in the same way that the modular PC, with its standardized slots and sockets, and the ubiquitous USB socket, empowered users to chain together a combination of hardware for their specific needs.

For this to work, ATAP must have created a set of standardized package sizes, sockets, and slots, which new components must fit in order to work with a Project ARA device. I’m hoping that following the example of previous Google projects like the WebM multimedia format and WebRTC (Real-Time Communications), these standardized interfaces will be released as open standards, rather than being encumbered with patents, and that Google don’t plan to act as gatekeepers of what hardware is allowed to work with Project ARA-compatible devices, as Apple do with software on their iThings.

This modular innovation also has the potential to address one of my other major concerns about handhelds, including both internet-capable “smartphones” and old school “feature phones”. If cameras can be removable, so can microphones, cellular modems, wi-fi chips, and GPS chips. A user could choose to plug them into the phone only when they want to use them, vastly reducing the handhelds capacity to be always-on surveillance and tracking devices.

Because of this, I’m hoping this modular approach gets adopted by another handheld project, FairPhone. Their main concerns are about social justice. This includes wanting to make handhelds that are more durable, and repairable, and it seems to me that the modular approach of Project ARA is an excellent fit for that goal. Their other goals includes making their hardware using raw materials that support peaceful local economies rather than military dictators and rogue paramilitaries, ensuring all workers involved in designing and manufacturing handhelds have fair wages and working conditions, and ensuring the hardware they make can be easily recycled when it does finally wear out.

FairPhone also say they want to support “open source”, in order to defend the “open platform” approach to software development we are used to on PC, rather than the iThing approach where one hardware manufacturer controls acts as gatekeeper of all software development on the platform. So far they are shipping with Android, but it would be good to see them work on making their devices compatible with a 100% free mobile OS like Replicant.

Adopting a modular approach to hardware would mean making the device itself an open platform. This might seem to reduce the control FairPhone have over whether all compatible hardware addresses their other social justice concerns, but they could take on the role of a certifying organisation, like those that exist for organic food and fair trade, and encourage users to buy only FairPhone certified handhelds and components.

BTW Happy summer solstice to all my southern hemisphere readers, and to all northern hemisphere readers, happy winter solstice and new year (our new year in the south, like yours, really ought to be celebrated around the winter solstice, not the middle of summer).

Filed January 5th, 2016 under open hardware
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