Open source hardware answers the problem of mobile device obsolescence

Open source hardware answers the problem of mobile device obsolescence

Summary: Frustrated with Apple's decision to mothball my iPad 1 with no future iOS updates, I've come up with a solution: Open source hardware.

TOPICS: Apple, iOS, iPhone, iPad

Perhaps you read my, "No iOS 6 for my original iPad? Now, I'm an Angry Bird" post that describes, in detail, my irritation with Apple for no longer supporting my iPad 1. If you haven't, you should so that you'll understand this post. Don't worry, I'll wait for you to finish before I continue.

Now, that you're back, I've come up with a solution to this overt obsolescence dilemma facing tens of millions of disappointed customers--not only from Apple but from other companies as well. Just read the comments from the original post and you'll see that we all face this, "Buy our newest stuff" marketing ploy regardless of your device source.

I don't need to purchase the latest techno gadget thingy every time one hits the market. It's expensive and silly to do so. Sure, in my position, I could make the things pay for themselves by writing about them but then I'm left with the monthly fees and another long term contract. I don't want either. It's too much burden and too much nonsense.

My job is to report on technology, the business of technology, technology innovations and technology companies. It is not my job to try to convince you to buy the newest gadget that you don't need.

A tablet, the new computing platform, should last an expected four or five years--the same as the thing it replaced: The PC. A phone should last at least three years. But, you won't get that attitude from gadget makers. They want you to desire the latest thing in two years or less. They want you to abandon your old device in favor of the new one that has a better processor, a larger screen--although your laptop had a 17-inch screen--and more features that you now must have.


The answer to this is open source hardware.

Yep, that's right. Open source hardware.

It's not unfamiliar territory to you. Although, no one ever called it that before, all of those "white box" PCs are just that: Open source hardware.

Since the early 1980s, white boxes, aka open source hardware, put PCs into almost every home in America. It made sense for those who couldn't afford to purchase a brand but needed or wanted a personal computer. It made sense then and it makes sense now.

Once, you could find hundreds of independent PC builders in a city. In Dallas, where I lived in the mid-1980s, there must have been 500 of them. And, more if you count up the number of random guys who could throw together a PC with a bunch of parts purchased at the First Saturday Computer Sale in downtown Dallas.

Now, imagine that same scenario except with phones and tablets.

I'll call my new "White box" phone, the MyPhone. And, the tablet, the MyPad.

Yes, you can buy a MyPhone or a MyPad fully assembled and ready for an operating system or you can build your own out of parts--just like back in the old days when we'd spend a Saturday afternoon piecing together the hardware that we'd just bought into a real working PC.

It could be the same again with mobile devices. I'm game. Are you?

I'd purchase phone parts, tablet parts and an operating system or download Android and install it. I'd have a phone that might last eight years or more by replacing this or that part along the way, just like I did with the last PC I had.

That way, I could spend a small amount every couple of years, keep my cellular plan, update the OS and enjoy a market hype-free life.

Open source hardware is a good thing.

Obsolescence sucks.

If I take care of my hardware, I should be able to use it for years, not months. The hardware should outlast the cellular contract. In fact, I should be able to move the SIM card from device to device regardless of carrier or device manufacturer.

OK, there's another opportunity for someone: Open source SIM cards.

For me, open source everything makes sense. Computer hardware and software, mobile device hardware, software and just about anything else that you buy that wears out or needs replacement.

Open source hardware is the answer to obsolescence. On all fronts.

What do you think? Would you buy and use "White box" mobile devices? Why or why not? Talk back an let me know.

Topics: Apple, iOS, iPhone, iPad


Kenneth 'Ken' Hess is a full-time Windows and Linux system administrator with 20 years of experience with Mac, Linux, UNIX, and Windows systems in large multi-data center environments.

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  • Yes!

    It would be great to see this. The motherboard should have a standard socket so you can upgrade the processor, and another for the communications module so you can keep current with whatever the new high speed standard would be (5G WTF or whatever it will be called). It can certainly be done, but I am not holding my breath for it.
    • This i would love to see

      It seems lately that even the pc market is moving away from interchangeability! I do worry that as the new form factor laptops develop this problem could spread.

      To mr Hess, I'd say; It's important to remember that we're in a sort of transitional period at the moment; a kind of wild west - to reference your example, the IBM-PC hasn't created a platform yet; just lots of proprietary hardware. This hasn't been helped by a lack of operating systems - precisely one; the one that came with your device, sure to a point you can upgrade your OS so long as the manufacturer gives you an update.

      Of course there are already a number of open hardware vendors out there that typically provide hardware known to be linux (and often ms) compatible. But this is just on the pc front.

      To truly get what you are asking for, you have to wait for linux to arrive fully on the mobile scene. In the 80's ms came to the rescue by being hardware independent, but this time MS are going fully in with the hardware themselves and locking down boot-loaders on arm devices. There remains a hope however.

      Motorola has announced an x86 phone that they have hinted at will have unlocked boot loaders and the intel based w8 tablets are theoretically bound by desktop rules- that you can turn off secure boot should you wish. These may provide an option.

      However in your instance, I'm afraid it won't help too much; maybe extend the life of the pad by a year. The reality of the ipad 1 is that the hardware is very limited by todays standards.

      What I think has happened is that you've got a little bit complacent about tech advances; pre 2000 it was basically unthinkable that hardware would be able to run an OS 3 generations later than it was designed for. Lately hardware power has outstripped OS requirements by so much that it's much less of an option. The mobile market is very different; it is in it's infancy. However it is moving very quickly in the same direction; i read about the first 2gb tablet on here this week. At the time your ipad was cutting edge, but tech moved quickly and left it behind; the same with my first iphone, even my 3gs just got ios6.

      In reality your pad will still be getting apps for quite a while to come. The real problem lies in the online store nature of software; more and more we're expected to use software dependant on an online server - unlike your old dos games, one day that software will cease to function. From what I've read this is the plan for the next generation of games consoles too - you don't buy a physical game, you download it, then you sign in to use it - so 10 years later that game won't even start.

      Not having ios6 isn't the end of the world; plenty of people still run 4!
  • Mostly nonsense

    This is a very new sector where both HW and SW is changing rapidly.

    And how would you assemble all these rapidly changing open source parts into a tiny case, including the buttons, battery and the screen?

    How would you deal with thermal design issues?

    In the olden days you had a huge case with lots of room and options. Not so in smartphones and tablets.

    Here is a much better solution?

    Don't buy into closed ecosystems, and long term contracts with the so called "subsidized" prices. Only buy devices that are easily rooted and have designs/features and sales volumes that facilitate a healthy custom ROM environment. Then you support that environment with blogs and donations.

    If the consumers were smart and self disciplined enough we could radically change the mobile sector. Unfortunately most consumers seem to be sheep and have large part of their self esteem tied into having the latest gadgets. Both the manufacturers and the carriers know that they can take advantage of the consumers, and so they do.
    • When in a "Brain Storming Idea" session, the rule is every idea has merit.

      Your comment, "Mostly Nonsense", goes against basic good manners and against that brain storming session paradigm. For shame, D.T. Long.

      This is how you should have phrased that thought, IMO. Your topic heading should have read, "Mr. Hess, your ideas are appreciated but they are mostly nonsense." (For all the reasons you outlined, D.T.)

      See, wasn't that better?

      To Ken: Sorry Ken, but your premise is wrong. A tablet was never intended to be a stand alone device or take the place of a PC. A tablet's price reflects that concept.

      But you do have a few interesting concepts about upgradeability. Unlike Apple's tablet designs which sacrifice the ability to expose the inner hardware components easily in order to maximize the mobility design factors, Microsoft has shown how their MS Surface Tablets is easier to expose their inner components for repair component replacement purposes. (I saw a few published graphics of the Surface Tablets showcasing that point.)

      Still, the only component worth replacing as a hardware upgrade possibility would be the SOC. In most cases, that chip is soldered onto a circuit board. You would need a motherboard design that would accomodate a least one upgrade generation SOC chip design replacement and have that chip designed for easy insertion into the motherboard.

      However, the business case for that scenario just doesn't exist, IMO.
      • I will concede your point, but ......

        I am not convinced that your suggestion is much of an improvement, assuming "nonsense" is the offensive term.

        I agree that politeness, consideration and courtesy are important ingredients in human interaction. I have hung around ZDNet for some time however, and while many blogs are well written and worthwhile, FAR too many are simply click bait, stirring pointless and mindless (fanboy?) controversies to produce advertising revenue for the site and the bloggers themselves. Often blogs are posted just for the sake of keeping the posting volume up imho.

        It is difficult not to become jaded after a while. Whether this particular blog "qualifies" may be debatable.
        • Sorry, D.T. but my comment was mostly an attempt at humor.

          There was nothing wrong with your phrase. There was quite a bit wrong, IMO, with Ken's suggestions as they pertain to tablets and smartphones.
      • That RDF must be quite strong where you live

        kenosha77a wrote:
        "A tablet was never intended to be a stand alone device or take the place of a PC. A tablet's price reflects that concept.

        Remember when Steve Jobs called PCs trucks? News flash! Not everyone needs a truck. Whether a tablet can serve as a standalone computing device depends entirely on the individual and that individual's use cases. For some individuals, a tablet is the only computing device that they need.

        As for price, the current version iPad ranges from$499 to $829. One does not have to look very far to find a Windows-based PC anywhere in this price range. In fact, one can even buy an OS X-based PC, the Mac Mini, at either $599 or $799, well within the price range of an iPad.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
  • While you are waiting for open-source hardware ...

    You could, in the future, pay more attention to your hardware purchases. Buying an older model smartphone or tablet before it's discontinued could add years to your device usage. All that is needed is a little "elbow grease" (or installing open-source software on your closed-source hardware).

    For smartphones and tablets:

    For smartphones:

    Apple's devices are noticeably absent from these lists.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Because they're android mods?

      Presumably Apple not making android devices is what keeps them off the lists? Jailbreaking his iOS 5 will add pretty much all the features he wants. I think the problem was that Apple didn't upgrade the OS; many android devices have the same problem; if anything they have stopped recieving updates sooner than the 2009 3gs, so that option wouldn't solve his problem, unless i missed a 2009 android smartphone recently updated to jelly bean?

      The point was that the hardware can't really take it; android devices of the time are going to fall foul of the same problems.

      What is being asked for going forward is more of a cross platform OS. On the one hand Android does support this, on the other it does not. For the time being Android runs on nearly all non ios smart phones, but it's a different implimentation on each, waiting for your OEM or carrier to update your device; this is not ideal. We'd be looking for a situation where Google announce "jelly bean available monday" and everyone installs it.

      Hopefully going forward a true device independant os will emerge victorious - android has great potential to be that OS, but we aren't quite there yet in hardware or OS.

      I think some people got confused by "open source hardware" - largerly because it doesn't make sense; who's going to develop hardware then post their development documentation online?! I think what was argued for was a standardisation of hardware, a "Samsung Galaxy SIII - compatible" era. This does not mean standardised design and layouts, meerly a common platform, whatever the form factor; this I see already taking shape. It will definitely be on the android side of the fence, not closed apple (boot camp for ios anyone?) but I also think as I said above that we may see it first in windows pro tablets; the potential for dual booting windows and android on those devices is definitely there.. Plus mobile versions of contempory linux.
      • RE: Because they're android mods?

        There's a CyanogenMod download for the discontinued HP TouchPad that shipped with WebOS.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
        • Not that that was in anyway the point of my reply,

          But web os was also linux based. Cyanogen mod even discribes itself as mods for android. The real point is do they develop mods for jailbroken ios? That would be the only way it'd be relevent.
  • i think you should take that "source" away source in OpS means source code

    With apple you can't have anything open...Android already is open source and open hardware with apple absolutely no way....but what you are thinking is make a smartphone exactly like PCs i wouldn't think anyone would do that it probably takes away the sexiness of smartphones so it is a no go, smartphones are just different beasts from PCs!
  • Too bad

    Cell phone companies make Android close source with all of that stuff they load on it. Before you rant about rooting, that is a absurd way to make a device work. Cell phone providers are also to blame as they don't want you paying for something that is not in a contract. Lets look at the real problem...
    • I think in general the limited- os based devices are numbered.

      Looking at the massive advancement in mobile tech; quad core, gigs of ram, multicore graphics, and now x86 processors, it has to be the beginning of the end for compromise os?

      IOS and Android came about because smartphones back in 2007/2008 respectively couldn't run mac os or full blown linux. Looking at devices like samsungs new slates, i foresee a time not too far off where full os are available on tablets across price ranges.

      At the end of the day what we really need in a tablet is a different user interface - read desktop manager for fellow open source users - not a closed system. I think android and ios are destined to remain on phones for quite a while yet, but tablets, well I think w8 compatible tablets are going to be able to really shake this up. Looking at the upcomming windows 8 tablets, i'd say Apple in particular had better have some kind of "pad-pro" planned next year with mac os on it if it wants to keep up. There's only soo long before the oems bring full win 8 tablets down to ipad prices.
  • This would be doable, except

    for the prohibitive costs of buying the individual pieces necessary for a touch screen phone. The costs are high if you buy only one touch screen, I've looked into it. I can get just the touch interface to apply to an existing LCD panel for $500 (for roughly a 25" screen). Buying all the pieces would cost significantly more than buying even the more expensive phones. Then putting it together is difficult to say the least.

    Though, it is a nice thought: I buy a touch screen, SoC/processor/graphics processor, motherboard, universal cell network chip w/Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/NFC, a camera, SSD/flash memory/RAM, audio card w/headphone jack, ... okay, now this is starting to get crazy. This is why we haven't had laptops with many options. There is too much going on in too small of a space for any normal person to be building it.
  • Better to have a law opening up devices/software after maker drops support.

    I'd prefer and believe it would be better to have a law that says if a maker of hardware or software drops support for the product, that it would be required for them to make information available such that the device could be supported by others under a limited basis. So let's say you have a tablet by a maker who goes belly up. The firmware and the OS would then be required to be published and someone else could then issue upgrades. If the manufacturer still exists, then maybe a royalty fee could be set, but those who have the devices wouldn't end up stranded. Same for software - it would be great if MS issued out the code for MS Money and a community created to keep it updated and usable versus the horror that Quicken currently has become.

    How about you sell it on Craigslist and cut your losses and use the proceeds to buy an Ipad 2 or 3. Apple has to draw the line somewhere. iPad 1 had a serious problem with loading both iOS 4 and 5. I gave it to my sister-in-law when I bought my iPad 3.

    My wife's iPad 2 is doing just fine. The dual-core A5 and the A5X on the iPads 2 and 3 (as well as the new A6 on my iPhone 5), are all excellent chips.

    The A4 was revolutionary for it's time, but after a year it started getting bogged down by the software updates. Still, the A4 served my iPad 1 and my iPhone 4 well.

    It's time to move on.

      Apparently, somebody got a build of Android 4.1 "Jelly.Bean" running on an HTC G1. The newest version of Android, running on the oldest Android phone, just to prove it could be done.

      The nice thing about Open Source is, there's nobody deciding what you can and can't have "for your own good"; it's always your own choice.
      • Yes, it is about your own choice

        and it was the choice of everyone who purchased an iPad to buy one, even though the operating system and apps come from Apple and only from Apple (unless you jailbreak it). So once you've made that choice, it's a little petty to start complaining later that Apple didn't do what you wanted them to do. Either live with it, or don't buy Apple next time, now that you know what they're like (although you should have known before you bought the first one).
        Of course, since you can no longer get updates from Apple for the original iPad, at this point there's probably no reason not to jailbreak it and install whatever you want on there. They're not going to complain, and there won't be any updates to invalidate your jailbreak.
    • Doesn't make sense, though.

      If you look at the specs, the iPad 1 is [b]identical[/b] to my 4th-gen iPod Touch (which can supposedly take iOS 6):

      -- SoC (System on Chip): A4 for both
      -- CPU: 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 for both (although "underclocked" to 800MHz on my iPod)
      -- RAM: 256MB DRAM on the A4 SoC for both
      -- Connectivity: 802.1b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1 for both

      Storage only affects how many songs/apps you can store on it, but iPad 1 was available in a 32GB model, just like my iPod. In fact, the only difference I can find is that the iPod touch has a gyroscope, which the iPad 1 doesn't (not installed until the iPad 2). However, I would imagine that's only required for finer detection of the motion of the iPad itself, as opposed to being a requirement for least one would hope so. Otherwise it'd be like saying you couldn't use your PS3 without the Playstation Move, even though you still have your conventional controllers hooked up.