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Name: Harald Welte
Member since: 2000-08-20 17:12:09
Last Login: 2016-06-25 11:24:42

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Ten years anniversary of Openmoko

In 2006 I first visited Taiwan. The reason back then was Sean Moss-Pultz contacting me about a new Linux and Free Software based Phone that he wanted to do at FIC in Taiwan. This later became the Neo1973 and the Openmoko project and finally became part of both Free Software as well as smartphone history.

Ten years later, it might be worth to share a bit of a retrospective.

It was about building a smartphone before Android or the iPhone existed or even were announced. It was about doing things "right" from a Free Software point of view, with FOSS requirements going all the way down to component selection of each part of the electrical design.

Of course it was quite crazy in many ways. First of all, it was a bunch of white, long-nosed western guys in Taiwan, starting a company around Linux and Free Software, at a time where that was not really well-perceived in the embedded and consumer electronics world yet.

It was also crazy in terms of the many cultural 'impedance mismatches', and I think at some point it might even be worth to write a book about the many stories we experienced. The biggest problem here is of course that I wouldn't want to expose any of the companies or people in the many instances something went wrong. So probably it will remain a secret to those present at the time :/

In any case, it was a great project and definitely one of the most exciting (albeit busy) times in my professional career so far. It was also great that I could involve many friends and FOSS-compatriots from other projects in Openmoko, such as Holger Freyther, Mickey Lauer, Stefan Schmidt, Daniel Willmann, Joachim Steiger, Werner Almesberger, Milosch Meriac and others. I am happy to still work on a daily basis with some of that group, while others have moved on to other areas.

I think we all had a lot of fun, learned a lot (not only about Taiwan), and were working really hard to get the hardware and software into shape. However, the constantly growing scope, the [for western terms] quite unclear and constantly changing funding/budget situation and the many changes in direction have ultimately lead to missing the market opportunity. At the time the iPhone and later Android entered the market, it was too late for a small crazy Taiwanese group of FOSS-enthusiastic hackers to still have a major impact on the landscape of Smartphones. We tried our best, but in the end, after a lot of hype and publicity, it never was a commercial success.

What's more sad to me than the lack of commercial success is also the lack of successful free software that resulted. Sure, there were some u-boot and linux kernel drivers that got merged mainline, but none of the three generations of UI stacks (GTK, Qt or EFL based), nor the GSM Modem abstraction gsmd/libgsmd nor middleware (freesmartphone.org) has manage to survive the end of the Openmoko company, despite having deserved to survive.

Probably the most important part that survived Openmoko was the pioneering spirit of building free software based phones. This spirit has inspired pure volunteer based projects like GTA04/Openphoenux/Tinkerphone, who have achieved extraordinary results - but who are in a very small niche.

What does this mean in practise? We're stuck with a smartphone world in which we can hardly escape any vendor lock-in. It's virtually impossible in the non-free-software iPhone world, and it's difficult in the Android world. In 2016, we have more Linux based smartphones than ever - yet we have less freedom on them than ever before. Why?

  • the amount of hardware documentation on the processors and chipsets to day is typically less than 10 years ago. Back then, you could still get the full manual for the S3C2410/S3C2440/S3C6410 SoCs. Today, this is not possible for the application processors of any vendor
  • the tighter integration of application processor and baseband processor means that it is no longer possible on most phone designs to have the 'non-free baseband + free application processor' approach that we had at Openmoko. It might still be possible if you designed your own hardware, but it's impossible with any actually existing hardware in the market.
  • Google blurring the line between FOSS and proprietary code in the Android OS. Yes, there's AOSP - but how many features are lacking? And on how many real-world phones can you install it? Particularly with the Google Nexus line being EOL'd? One of the popular exceptions is probably Fairphone2 with it's alternative AOSP operating system, even though that's not the default of what they ship.
  • The many binary-only drivers / blobs, from the graphics stack to wifi to the cellular modem drivers. It's a nightmare and really scary if you look at all of that, e.g. at the binary blob downloads for Fairphone2 to get an idea about all the binary-only blobs on a relatively current Qualcomm SoC based design. That's compressed 70 Megabytes, probably as large as all of the software we had on the Openmoko devices back then...

So yes, the smartphone world is much more restricted, locked-down and proprietary than it was back in the Openmoko days. If we had been more successful then, that world might be quite different today. It was a lost opportunity to make the world embrace more freedom in terms of software and hardware. Without single-vendor lock-in and proprietary obstacles everywhere.

Syndicated 2016-11-27 15:00:00 from LaForge's home page

Open Hardware miniPCIe WWAN modem USB breakout board released

There are plenty of cellular modems on the market in the mPCIe form factor.

Playing with such modems is reasonably easy, you can simply insert them in a mPCIe slot of a laptop or an embedded device (soekris, pc-engines or the like).

However, many of those modems actually export interesting singals like digital PCM audio or UART ports on some of the mPCIe pins, both in standard and in non-standard ways. Those signals are inaccessible in those embedded devices or in your laptop.

So I built a small break-out board which performs the basic function of exposing the mPCIe USB signals on a USB mini-B socket, providing power supply to the mPCIe modem, offering a SIM card slot at the bottom, and exposing all additional pins of the mPCIe header on a standard 2.54mm pitch header for further experimentation.

/images/mpcie-breakout-front.jpg

The design of the board (including schematics and PCB layout design files) is available as open hardware under CC-BY-SA license terms. For more information see http://osmocom.org/projects/mpcie-breakout/wiki

If you don't want to build your own board, fully assembled and tested boards are available from http://shop.sysmocom.de/products/minipcie-wwan-modem-usb-break-out-board

Syndicated 2016-11-24 23:00:00 from LaForge's home page

Open Hardware Multi-Voltage USB UART board released

During the past 16 years I have been playing a lot with a variety of embedded devices.

One of the most important tasks for debugging or analyzing embedded devices is usually to get access to the serial console on the UART of the device. That UART is often exposed at whatever logic level the main CPU/SOC/uC is running on. For 5V and 3.3V that is easy, but for ever more and more unusual voltages I always had to build a custom cable or a custom level shifter.

In 2016, I finally couldn't resist any longer and built a multi-voltage USB UART adapter.

This board exposes two UARTs at a user-selectable voltage of 1.8, 2.3, 2.5, 2.8, 3.0 or 3.3V. It can also use whatever other logic voltage between 1.8 and 3.3V, if it can source a reference of that voltage from the target embedded board.

/images/mv-uart-front.jpg

Rather than just building one for myself, I released the design as open hardware under CC-BY-SA license terms. Full schematics + PCB layout design files are available. For more information see http://osmocom.org/projects/mv-uart/wiki

In case you don't want to build it from scratch, ready-made machine assembled boards are also made available from http://shop.sysmocom.de/products/multi-voltage-usb-dual-uart

Syndicated 2016-11-24 23:00:00 from LaForge's home page

(East) European motorbike tour on 20y old BMW F650ST

For many years I've always been wanting to do some motrobike riding accross the Alps, but somehow never managed to do so. It seems when in Germany I've always been too busy - contrary to the many motorbike tours around and accross Taiwan which I did during my frequent holidays there.

This year I finally took the opportunity to combine visiting some friends in Hungary and Bavaria with a nice tour starting from Berlin over Prague and Brno (CZ), Bratislava (SK) to Tata and Budapeest (HU), further along lake Balaton (HU) towards Maribor (SI) and finally accross the Grossglockner High Alpine Road (AT) to Salzburg and Bavaria before heading back to Berlin.

It was eight fun (but sometimes long) days riding. For some strange turn of luck, not a single drop of rain was encountered during all that time, travelling accross six countries.

The most interesting parts of the tour were:

  • Along the Elbe river from Pirna (DE) to Lovosice (CZ). Beautiful scenery along the river valey, most parts of the road immediately on either side of the river. Quite touristy on the German side, much more pleaant and quiet on the Czech side.
  • From Mosonmagyarovar via Gyor to Tata (all HU). Very little traffic alongside road '1'. Beatutil scenery with lots of agriculture and forests left and right.
  • The Nothern coast of Lake Balaton, particularly from Tinany to Keszthely (HU). Way too many tourists and traffic for my taste, but still very impressive to realize how large/long that lake really is.
  • From Maribor to Dravograd (SI) alongside the Drau/Drav river valley.
  • Finally, of course, the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, which reminded me in many ways of the high mountain tours I did in Taiwan. Not a big surprise, given that both lead you up to about 2500 meters above sea level.

Finally, I have to say I've been very happy with the performancee of my 1996 model BMW F 650ST bike, who has coincidentially just celebrated its 20ieth anniversary. I know it's an odd bike design (650cc single-cylinder with two spark plugs, ignition coils and two carburetors) but consider it an acquired taste ;)

I've also published a map with a track log of the trip

In one month from now, I should be reporting from motorbike tours in Taiwan on the equally trusted small Yamaha TW-225 - which of course plays in a totally different league ;)

Syndicated 2016-08-16 14:00:00 from LaForge's home page

Going to attend Electromagnetic Field 2016

Based on some encouragement from friends as well as my desire to find more time again to hang out at community events, I decided to attend Electromagnetic Field 2016 held in Guildford, UK from August 5th through 7th.

As I typically don't like just attending an event without contributing to it in some form, I submitted a couple of talks / workshops, all of which were accepted:

  • An overview talk about the Osmocom project
  • A Workshop on running your own cellular network using OpenBSC and related Osmocom software
  • A Workshop on tracing (U)SIM card communication using Osmocom SIMtrace

I believe the detailed schedule is still in the works, as I haven't yet been able to find any on the event website.

Looking forward to having a great time at EMF 2016. After attending Dutch and German hacker camps for almost 20 years, let's see how the Brits go about it!

Syndicated 2016-07-23 14:00:00 from LaForge's home page

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