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There is a set of technology which Makers are legally allowed access, and there is a much larger set of technology which is used to make our every day gadgets. Access to the best closed-source technology is prevented via barriers such as copyright (limiting your ability to learn how it works), patent (limiting your ability to make something similar), and supply-chain (limiting your ability to buy it). As a result, open-licensed, Maker-friendly technologies have trailed closed-source technology in terms of cost, performance, and features.
Makers operating under Western IP law are legally bound by these barriers, and are forced to settle for Arduinos, Beaglebones, Raspberry Pis and Novenae. However, all of these are a far cry in terms of cost, performance, and features from what consumers typically expect from boxes purchased in retail stores.
Our research into the Chinese ecosystem indicates there is another way. Originally marginalized as outlaws and copycats, the Shanzhai of China – China's counterpart to the Western hacker-maker – exist in a realm where copyright and patent barriers are permeable, a state which we refer to as 'gongkai'. As a result, knowledge and access to state of the art closed source technology has diffused into the Shanzhai ecosystem. Today, they have moved beyond the rote copying of Nokia, Samsung, and Apple, and have created a thriving, vibrant ecosystem where mobile technology is rip/mix/burned; their products are mass-produced at a rate of millions per month for the “rest of the world”, e.g. emerging markets such as Africa, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Russia.
About a year ago, we did a tear-down of an example $12 phone, and contrasted it to the Arduino Uno. For $29, the Arduino Uno gets you a 16MHz, 8-bit CPU with 2.5k of RAM, and USB plus a smattering of GPIO as the sole interfaces. For $12, a phone out of the Chinese gongkai ecosystem gets you a 260 MHz, 32-bit CPU with 8MiB of RAM, with USB, microSD, SIM, quad-band GSM, Bluetooth, an OLED display and a battery. It begs the question of why, when Makers talk about IoT technologies in the West, they typically think of wifi-powered solutions in the $20-70 range, versus a GSM platform in the $10-$20 range.
In this lecture, we disclose an attempt to short-circuit the disclosure barrier. We are releasing an open hardware and software solution built around the Mediatek MT6260. The MT6260 is a 32-bit ARM7EJ-S SoC with 8MiB of PSRAM in-package, as well as USB, LCD, touchscreen, audio, Bluetooth, quad-band GSM, dual-SIM, FM radio, UART, keypad, SD card, camera, and other peripherals integrated. The chip can be purchased on the over-the-counter market for about $2-3 in China. We call our solution built around this chip “Fernvale”.
Fernvale is similar to the “LinkIt ONE” recently released by Mediatek and Seeed Studios, based upon the MT2502A SoC and targeted at IoT and wearables. LinkIt indicates a new direction for Mediatek and we are optimistic that their effort indicates a new pattern of openness toward Makers. At the time of this proposal's submission, the details of the LinkIt ONE platform are still unfolding, but the basic feature set looks comparable to that of Fernvale. However, it seems the LinkIt SDK is still based upon a closed-source Nucleus RTOS providing services to an open Arduino-like API.
Unlike LinkIt ONE, Fernvale runs a port of NuttX, a small-footprint BSD-licensed RTOS that is Posix and ANSI compliant, and includes a partial set of drivers for the available hardware peripherals. The mainboard is laid out to function as either a SoM (system on module) or as a truncated Arduino shield (with the appropriate headers populated), and focuses on the computational abilities of the platform. In other words, Fernvale is not positioned as a mobile phone solution per se, but rather as an Engineering Development Kit (EDK) for embedded applications that can benefit from a highly-integrated, low-cost high-performance microcontroller solution such as the MT6260. As a result, the mainboard breaks out a selection of GPIO as well as the speaker, battery, USB, and SD card interfaces. The mainboard also serves as a base platform for rallying a larger community of developers who can aid with the task of reverse engineering and writing legally open drivers for its massive peripheral set.
Two expansion headers are provided on the mainboard. A larger UX header can be used to attach a keypad + LCD + audio interface, for applications that require UI elements. A smaller analog header enables users to attach an RF front-end of their choosing, which could potentially enable GSM-compatible voice and data services, if drivers were to exist.
This lecture will also discuss our experiences reverse engineering, and our approach to open-sourcing the MT6260. We had to reverse engineer significant portions of the system, including but not limited to circuit board layouts, hardware configuration options, bootloader protocols, partial register maps, and the internal boot ROM of the SoC. This reverse engineering effort was necessary to create a blob-free software implementation, and to give developers an alternative to Mediatek's proprietary firmware flashing utilities to upload code. It was also necessary to create schematics and circuit board maskworks which have an original copyright thereby giving us the right to pick an open license for the hardware designs.
We took special pains to ensure our method was lawful and the resulting work is copyright-clean under U.S. law. We did review some non-open-licensed chip documentation and code examples available for download from open file-sharing sites. None of these materials were restricted by DRM. American copyright law contains a fair-use exception that allows limited copying and examination of such materials for the purpose of understanding the ideas and functional concepts embodied in them. We believe our download and review of those materials is fair use. Should potential copyright holders disagree with our interpretation, we invite any offended parties to engage us in rational discourse.
We believe that Makers have for too long lived in the shadow of overbearing copyright laws. We need to develop an example of how to import ideas from less strict IP jurisdictions where innovation is flourishing; failing this, hardware Makers run the risk of being eternally behind the Shanzhai. Fernvale is our first attempt at developing a legal context for importing IP from the gongkai ecosystem into a fully open source solution; we hope our example will embolden other developers to pursue more ambitious targets. We also hope our work may, in the long term, catalyze meaningful Maker-friendly reform to Western IP law by raising awareness of the disparity between East and West, with the success of the Shanzhai serving as evidence of how permissive IP policy can be good for both grass-roots innovators (the Shanzhai) and big businesses (Mediatek and the phone network operators) alike.