DEC
25
2013

Open Hardware for KDE

From its beginning, KDE has been a leader in innovation in free (libre) and open source software (FLOSS), but there is a threat to that leadership in one of the fastest growing areas of technology. The advantages of free and open development and use are clear for software; now closed and proprietary strategies have become standard in other kinds of technology. The need for technology freedom has moved from software to other more corporate-controllable areas—notably hardware and the Internet.

As was the case when KDE started, community-developed, freedom-oriented technology is necessary to break the stranglehold of large companies that are more committed to managers and investors than to users. But this won’t be easy and it can’t be left to a few people. The entire KDE Community has a stake in the outcome. For that matter, this should be a concern to anyone who develops free and open software, anyone who uses it, anyone who benefits from it. And that includes just about everyone using technology today.

New hardware has been announced that addresses the need for openness beyond software. Community help is needed to support a generous, far-sighted open hardware project involving mostly KDE people and certainly following KDE principles. Please consider contributing financially to open hardware for KDE.

More of the story follows...

The threat of proprietary & closed

The Internet is under threat from companies that seek unfair leverage with their massive investments...investments, by the way, that are already well compensated. The nature of these companies is such that every possible means must be used to extract value.

The digital hegemony of several U.S. companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google) plus Samsung dominate technology. All of these companies depend to a great extent on free and open software. Microsoft tries (and fails) to stay in this league with such schemes as using its monopoly position to force conditioned users to adopt Windows 8—a mobile phone GUI blown up to a touch interface on a 19" monitor, positioned by clever marketers as "platform convergence".

What these companies are doing is not wrong; it’s the way most things work these days.

KDE’s leadership is an opportunity to extend free and open technology, providing creative minds unlimited room to innovate. Mainstream tech companies try to do this without disrupting their profits or stock prices. We are fortunate to have such freedom.

Plasma Active

Nine years ago, KDE started planning for a shared technology base for all types of computers. In September 2011, Plasma Active was released. It shared almost all the underlying code base of the other Plasma Workspaces, along with an innovative user interface specifically designed for tablets and the way they are used. KDE quietly offered platform convergence well before Microsoft or Canonical jumped on the bandwagon.

Plasma Active fits well with KDE’s original goal. As Matthias Ettrich wrote in the announcement of KDE:

"The idea is to create a GUI for an ENDUSER" and "IMHO a GUI should offer a complete, graphical environment. It should allow users to do everyday tasks with it, like starting applications, reading mail, configuring the desktop, editing some files, delete some files, look at some pictures, etc. All parts must fit together and work together."

Plasma Active is free and open software, readily available to install on any tablet. But it has been installed on only a few types of tablets, and requires higher than average technical know-how to install and maintain.

Why?

Virtually all tablets on the market have either Google’s Android operating system or Apple’s iOS. Neither is truly free and open. Apple technology is closed and proprietary...Apple’s business model. Android is 23% open according to VisionMobile. Installing a different operating system and user interface means violating warranty terms. In addition, there is no standard version of the Android operating system even with the same version number. These operating systems and user interface designs are controlled by Apple, Google and Samsung (which sells approximately 40% of all Android devices). These companies have no interest in making their hardware run KDE software. In fact, doing so would be contrary to the fundamental purpose of such enterprises.

The environment for Plasma Active is far different (and more restricted) than that for other KDE software. With any commercially available desktop or laptop, it is simple to install and run KDE and other free and open software. While there may be some occasional hassles with wireless or graphics, those are easily overcome. Plasma Active comes standard on the open hardware platform called Improv.

Software can’t be free and open if its hardware is closed and proprietary. Improv is as open and free as possible.

The tablet market

In October 2013, Gartner reported that global tablet sales would grow 53.4% for the year, and PC shipments would be down over 11% from the previous year. By 2015, tablets and PCs will sell about the same level.

Users will continue to want the kind of software KDE provides for traditional PCs, for several reasons. (Jos Poortvliet’s presentation at Akademy 2013 has some background.) KDE is viable for the foreseeable future...in the desktop and laptop space. But not for tablets, the fastest growing and highly visible personal computing segment.

Several free and open projects have been started to address the need for alternatives to the Android/iOS market dominance in tablets and other devices. Those projects have faced difficulties that point to the daunting nature of challenges to the Google, Samsung and Apple mobile oligopoly. Other projects such as CyanogenMod have chosen the venture capital route to try and compete. The fundraising goals are substantial:

  • Jolla – €200 million
  • CyanogenMod - $30 million
  • Ubuntu Edge – projected a requirement for $32 million
  • Tizen – multimillion dollar project sponsored by the Linux Foundation and supported by Intel and Samsung

Where do these projects stand?

Jolla began offering a smartphone in Finland at the beginning of December 2013. Their tablet operating system has been exhibited but is not commercially available. A mainstream journalist reports that the Jolla smartphone is a "work in progress" that still has some rough edges, and refers to the 'beta' nature of the handset and software.

Prominent venture capitalists have made substantial investments in CyanogenMod. So at least for the moment CyanogenMod is doing fine. They will have to capture major market share to satisfy venture capital investors...time will tell. This professional investment establishes a substantial value for CyanogenMod as a company and hints at the attractiveness of the device market. A market in which there's a danger of KDE being irrelevant.

Canonical tried to crowdfund a smartphone to round out their converged computing initiative. Against a goal of $32 million, there were commitments of about $12 million. Canonical hinted at backing from major hardware suppliers, but this news was light on detail.

Samsung was expected to launch a Tizen phone at Mobile World Congress in February. Now it appears that Tizen will not challenge Android and iOS this year after all. A Samsung switch to Tizen would be a blow to Android, but it would be good for Samsung’s already rich bottom line. And would further entrench the oligopoly.

According to the tech news site Gigaom, both Tizen and Ubuntu Touch have been set back. However with its substantial, prestigious backing, Tizen is almost certain of being successful.

All of these projects are associated to some degree with free and open software; their funding experiences—successful or not—indicate the potential value of the device industry. None of the organizations promise the degree of freedom and openness typical of KDE.

"The KDE Tablet"

Several years ago, KDE developers confronted 2 questions:

  • How can we ensure that KDE software is relevant to computer users today and tomorrow? KDE development teams are addressing this in various ways.
  • However, without proper hardware, some kinds of software development are not possible (for example, Qt on Android). What hackable ARM-based hardware exists that supports KDE software out of the box?

The answer was "NONE".

So in early 2012, Aaron Seigo announced the Spark (later renamed "Vivaldi") tablet, which would be produced by the Make Play Live (MPL) project (comprised mostly of people and companies associated with KDE). It would make the necessary hardware available.

Many readers will be familiar with the background. Plucky Aaron and his MPL team have faced significant challenges. One of the most difficult things to overcome has been the nonchalance of hardware suppliers about open source licensing. In addition, suppliers changed components without notice or consultation. In short, it has been an ongoing battle to produce hardware that would run Plasma Active out of the box.

In fact, Aaron and his small hardware development team were forced to engineer hardware from scratch. According to Aaron, there will be an open hardware tablet; it’s a question of when it will be available.

Improv

In the mean time, the efforts to produce an open hardware tablet revealed a need for general hardware development expertise for free and open projects. The Vivaldi lessons could be applied more broadly to all manner of hardware development.

Out of this realization, the MPL hardware development team created Improv.

Improv has two parts:

  1. An interchangeable card with a dual core 1 GHz ARM processor, 1 GB memory, 4GB NAND flash storage, Micro SD card reader,
  2. The standard connector on this card plugs into a feature board that provides access to I/O functions, including USB, HDMI, SATA, VGA, and a 44 pin DIL with a range of I/O possibilities.

Improv hardware drawings are open and readily available, software is covered by free and open source licenses, and interfaces are well-documented. In other words, Improv is open hardware, as open as it can be given that all graphics processing units (GPU) are closed and proprietary.

More information and detailed specifications are available at the MakePlayLive website. Improv comes with the Mer operating system, the lean Core Linux distribution that is a direct descendent of MeeGo. Additional software configurations are available, in fact encouraged.

Improv has been designed, prototyped, tested and retested. It can’t be bricked by installing other software or experimenting with configurations; there's no need to root the device. Concepts prototyped on Improv can be turned into complete, custom products using the same hardware.


Improv & Plasma Media Center

Improv is done. It’s ready. In typical KDE fashion, Improv was accomplished while others were saying what they were gonna do.

Aaron said this about the Improv:

Improv is hardware produced *for* free software rather than hardware that *happens to run* free software. It supports a range of software from a standard modern Linux user space all the way up to a full featured desktop. Openness for hardware and software is the goal rather than an accident or a market result.

For the KDE Community—KDE software on the device is just part of the picture. The device itself is a gift to KDE. We made Improv so we could have such a device for KDE.

Improv is a hardware template, a starting point for new products without requiring the resources of a large company with an in-house hardware team. Use it at home for a personal server or other project. It’s perfect in a school setting for education. But it can also be used to create entirely new products, experiment and prototype, and manufacture if there is demand. Improv is designed to grow from idea to finished product, all on the same hardware/software platform.

The know-how and manufacturing chain that has been assembled for Improv is available to anyone who wishes to build upon it. Rather than starting from scratch, Improv is a ready-made starting point for product development and creation.

Improv is a product that can open the doors to the world of ubiquitous, device-centric computing for KDE and other free and open projects. No more waiting for a big vendor to be kind and take our needs into consideration. No more trying to shoehorn KDE software into devices with proprietary lock-in.


Improv & Konqueror

I understand...how do I contribute?

That’s the pressing dilemma. With software, it’s easy for developers to contribute. A lot of people make their first contribution to free and open software with a single patch. Anyone can download the code and work with it. Start small. There's room for many contributors.

Hardware development is different; it involves physical pieces and is done in chunks. For example, board layout with multiple components and complicated routing is a one-person job.

Aaron and the small team have succeeded at creating the hardware. No further contributions are necessary towards its development. Improv works and works well.

However, there is another big difference between hardware and software—cost. Creating software has no out-of-pocket expense beyond the initial investment in a computer. Distributing one more copy of a KDE application has virtually no associated cost. On the other hand, hardware has a direct cost. Designing a printed circuit board is mostly done in software. But there is a cost to prototype and produce each copy of that physical board.

Aaron and a few others have personally paid these development costs. As can be inferred from the budgets mentioned above, Improv hardware development has not come cheap. There are no venture capitalists handing out money on this project. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It is a many year project, involving considerable personal sacrifice on behalf of KDE and free/open technology. Improv is based on generosity, not greed.

The team had high expectations that Improv pre-production sales would be enough to cover these expenses. They will eventually, but people want to get their hands on Improvs now. Delivery delays harm the project.

Please lend a hand

Funding is needed for the direct costs associated with manufacturing: electronic parts, feature board assembly and CPU cards.

Hundreds of people have already supported the project by buying an Improv.

You can help...
Consider buying an Improv, even if you don’t plan to play with it. Give it to a student who has just started learning about technology.

Company engineers might use Improv as a platform for building a custom product. It serves well for prototyping, and can mature gracefully to market readiness. Most importantly, Improv can reduce a hardware development schedule by many months with substantial cost savings.

Please consider donating to the project. Donations will only be used for direct manufacturing costs. Any money contributed beyond the goal of $125,000 will be used to produce Improvs for education.

Improv works. Please help push it from proven-design-ready-for-manufacturing to full production.

Take a stand for digital choice. A stand for what KDE has proven to be successful—free and open wins.