Bridging gongkai and free/open source


I wish there were more bridges into this amazing world of anarchist tech. The only western project I even know of based on free open source software and community design hardware is the OpenMoko and Neo900 projects for phones and the OpenPandora handheld gaming device, both very small scale.

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I wonder if Raspberry Pi and other such boards count.

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I know that Atmel, the company behind the processor chip in the Arduino, is a big FOSS supporter for at least 12 years hoping that the software will drive hardware.
The selection of ARM based stuff I think is small because of the big effort required to develop based on what I know from following the OpenMoko.

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Then the situation is not that much bleak. There are many things that we already take as granted that are opensource-hardware.

The gongkai system of China is what I’d consider second-best to “true” opensource. And their network attitude, from which emerges the swarming, asymmetric-warfare behavior, is likely to cause quite some trouble to the entrenched Western corporations.

This is partly why I prefer Atmel AVR over Microchip PIC.
And software is already driving hardware.

Now if only the FPGA vendors started pushing this view a bit more… I remember @doctorow talking about the user-reconfigurable gate-array based hardware in some ancient-now article, but the development in this field is rather slow (and quite behind-the-scenes, too). And the FOSS dev for FPGAs is not as fast as I’d like to see…

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I think that the situation is rather bleak. The Broadcomm CPU used in the Raspberry Pi itself has serious documentation issues, especially with its graphics subsystem. It’s a black box, and is being reverse-engineered also.

This whole ideas-as-property thing is really out of hand. Why is it in anyone’s best interest to stop others from using a good idea?

It’s way suboptimal, that is true. But I wouldn’t call it outright bleak. We have the boards, with schematics, with most of the functions documented. Some things still need to be reverse-engineered (maybe there could be crowdsourced money to stimulate “leaks” of the documentation, too?), but we already have a substantial amount of documented things to work with.

I wouldn’t call it “bleak”. “Good beginning” is what I would prefer. But it’s possibly a matter of perspective.

I don’t understand it as well. The Chinese with that gongkai thing are doing it better than “us”.

It’s a typical PRC cultural kludge, not really the objectively optimal way of doing it. For the system to work the upstart developers are supposed to develop guanxi (关系, a ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ relationship) with the chip vendor, something that is difficult for a non-Chinese organisation to do. As guanxi can also trump the law and relationships with other parties that have less of it, it’s a very opaque way of doing things with lots of opportunity for corruption and backstabbing.

Reverse engineering then open sourcing is bypassing the guanxi system, so while not illegal it’s definitely culturally inappropriate. But personally I reckon that’s cool —China has been ripping off western IP for long enough that it’s amusing to see it happening the other way around and in a good cause …


Cultural appropriateness, screw it. The important part is getting the documentation. Doesn’t really matter that much how.

When you need a datasheet, the last thing on the importance list is some tender feelings, whether they are of a corporation or a society.

In this context I’d have to agree. Han Chinese have a powerful hegemonising monoculture that walks all over other cultures it comes into contact with (including its own minorities), with not the slightest appreciation that anyone else could want to be different to them. Scary to think that the US has a counterpart in that respect on the other side of the Pacific. It has the potential to get very messy.

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So, don’t ask for permission and just Do It. It often works.

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