Bunnie Huaung reports on a $12 cell phone. It only needs two microchips.

I’m curious to study this new gongkai [ed: open] ecosystem. For sure, there will be critics who adhere to the tenets of Western IP law that will summarily reject the notion of alternate systems that can nourish innovation and entrepreneurship. On the other hand, it’s these tenets that lock open hardware into technology several generations old, as we wait for patents to expire and NDAs to lift before gaining access to the latest greatest technology.

Bunnie talks about getting through the front door, what it takes to get started with a microchip. The Western IP law he talks about force chip makers to only sell to big clients, to make their client's swear to secrecy about what is inside. Innovation stumbles along, with only big entities doing big projects able to spin out new works and only when a big institution sees that new entrant as a market which might satisfy it's matching big appetite.

Design can stand to be a little cruder. There's huge appeal- a near philosophical jumping point where we can call into question all the causes of the institution, ask ourselves intensely- what is necessary.

Certainly we come from a cruder world where good enough took serious effort, where refinement was an intensive and necessary process- modern civilization was bootstrapping itself, and gains were to be made and the corporation alone could create from scratch the new elements that better, more acceptable product demanded.

In contrast, Bunnie describes a world where design floats about. And it does, always, if not on paper then in our hands, going down the street, or in an office meeting- we carry our communication technology with us, and it's design is there to be read by anyone willing to take the time to reverse engineer it's boards. Cribbing subcomponents from existing designs, patching things together and trying it- China does not need engineers. It can in fact quite successfully cargo cult new designs into being, for very very cheap, just by watching, just by trying alike.

In America we train electrical engineers to model the systems they are building, to do hard study to understand whether something will work and to be able to say why first, but we have no commercial ethos that allows us to share our work. That ethos seems to many impossible in the atmosphere choked with NDAs, but as we march towards system on chip, towards really simple to use really powerful small chips available cheaply, the pretensions of big companies being the ones to spin out designs will surely fade. We're already reaching the transition, with companies such as Freescale rapidly working to open up access to the essential documentation of their systems, with reference designs being available and shared via both silicon merchants and open source hardware enthusiasts.

Yet the natural course does not run: the legal atmosphere is hot- we have the integrated circuit, but as we integrate more circuits in, the chances we cross into turf someone else may have been able to legally stake out as their own increases- systems are more liable to infringe someone's patent. This leads to the conditions Bunnie describes, the pre-eminent model of silicon merchant the old world and the legal world are bucking nature and shared-understanding to maintain- Of course, you can’t just call up Mediatek and buy these; and it’s extremely difficult to engage with them “going through the front door” to do a design.
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