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Is it time for privacy yet?

Jul 18, 2017, sn0wmonster

Moving forward on layouts for proto v2! Migrated to KiCad! [introducing our new communications officer sn0wmonster]

Is it time for privacy yet?

What do you do when you realize software solutions to closed hardware problems don't work? Do you settle for the illusion of privacy? Do you sink deeper in sunk costs fallacy and find ways to defend the corporations?

My handle is sn0wmonster. Some might know me as the founder of Taskhive. It's a decentralized, freedom and privacy focused freelancer marketplace. It's an experimental software and network solution to a social problem. The irony is not lost on me that secure software is only as good as the hardware its run on. I concede that as far as revolutions go, there is no greater or more important cause than that of the fight for open source hardware. Without it, our tools of sharing can easily become twisted as weapons against us. Skynet wins.

As far as hardware solutions go, the Neo900 will never be a state-of-the-art mobile gaming machine. Nor a bitcoin mining rig. It is not designed to artificially restrict itself and require scheduled replacement. It is, however, a practical solution to a difficult to solve problem.

When I stumbled upon the Neo900 project, it caught my attention by promising a basic freedom we all deserve. It promised us the right of control of what our devices do. For over a decade, we've waited for a proper GNU/Linux hand-held to materialize. We continue to be marketed lipstick on a pig as a legitimate solution. Closed-source firmware blobs running Android chroot can not be called open any more than a scooter can be called a hoverboard.

You can imagine how ecstatic I was to find a true cyberpunk project of this nature: taking a system designed to control us, and hacking it up to empower us. It's hard not to be a little excited; the Neo900 is what hacking is all about.

It goes without saying that the Neo900 project is a first of its kind. From its developers it demands focus, constant re-education, and an absolute obsession for details. It's not something I felt comfortable passively watching from a distance, merely hoping it succeeded. I knew I had to get involved somehow. For me, the best way I can do my part is to help provide news and announcements to the community at large. I've stepped in officially to do so.

I encourage everyone else to find a way to do their part as well, to lend a hand -- or a coin -- to seeing this project through to its end. If you're not sure what you can do to help, just ask! You can find us on irc.freenode.net in #neo900

What has been completed so far?

We updated and released the proto_v2 whitepaper in January 2017. We will use this design for the new layout. It's essentially the Neo900 with its brain outside of its body: a BeagleBoard_xM that shares an identical processor. This makes it easier to work on and minimizes failure of OMAP integration. It also provides a working testbed and development board for our community software developers (freemangordon, Pali, and parazyd, to name a few).

We migrated from Eagle to KiCad. This wasn't easy and it took some time to get right. The resulting freedom and more reliable future-proof production environment was definitely worth the time invested. Migration involved redesigning the schematics (i.e. circuit diagrams) in KiCad (thanks Werner and Joerg!) based on the original Eagle schematics made by Nikolaus.

To facilitate the migration to KiCad, Werner developed a very nice (read: legendary) tool called eeshow. It facilitates cooperative concurrent schematics design under KiCad. Thanks Werner!

We moved from the KiCad footprint editor to fped, where ceene designed our footprints for use in the layouts. Thanks ceene!

We use git and eeshow to facilitate collaborative editing. The KiCad project files are stored directly in the project git and accessed directly with eeshow.

We sourced all the N900 units for the Neo900 pre-orders.

We contracted with a layout technician who will be using KiCad.

What held us back so far?

Long time supporters will remember one of the original project co-founders, Nikolaus of GolDeliCo, was originally set to provide the layouts using Eagle EDA CAD. Eagle however is only up to that task with Nikolaus' own router extension plug-ins written for MacOS. This was not optimal, but alternatives seemed less appropriate at the time. Things were on schedule and moving along quite nicely. That is, until PayPal reminded all of us why they are a poor choice for donations and pre-orders, with a surprise account freeze (now luckily solved).

Prolonged illiquidity from Paypal and Nikolaus assigning all available timeslots to his other project Pyra, ultimately ended in Nikolaus exiting the project for a lack of available time. At this point we were forced to reassess our options. We didn't have the proper tools to continue with Eagle, which presented a daunting challenge that would involve a complete migration to KiCad instead. Thankfully, not only did we accomplish this migration successfully, but it turned out to be the right decision, evading a pay-to-play change in business models introduced by Autodesk's acquisition of Cadsoft-Eagle.

After ages of searching for and negotiating with several layout technicians, we've finally contracted with the LNAFIN company for the proto_v2 layout engineering. As it turns out, the agreed contract was more beneficial than expected: the CEO of LNAFIN is interested in supporting open source endeavors. That translates to a better deal for us. Critically important, they also support KiCad, which is arguably difficult to find. Thanks to ravelo for arranging the introduction with LNAFIN.

How are the funds holding up?

All pre-orders and kickstarters carry with them that ominous chance of failure, but we're proud to say that the current funding is sufficient to take us through to assembly and testing of proto_v2. Once it is sufficiently tested and ready, a kickstarter will be formed to fund the necessary production numbers for the final run to production. No one wants this to succeed more than we do, and great sacrifices have already been made to ensure funds are used appropriately.

What to expect next?

We plan to build up to a dozen of the proto_v2 units for further testing, eventually opening the kickstarter campaign for proto_v3. Prototype v3 - with luck and absence of Murphy - will be identical to the "mass produced" final version.

Testing of proto_v2 will likely reveal some minor bugs that will be fixed before moving on to proto_v3, utilizing the already tried and true BB-xM/GTA04 CPU_et_al core.

Expect regular news updates and announcements from here on out care of sn0wmonster.

Thank you all for continuing to make the Neo900 possible, and please know that the fight isn't over yet. When the time comes, we'll need your help again, and will continue to use it sparingly.

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The Neo900 project aims to provide a successor of N900 Nokia Internet Tablet™ device, with faster CPU, more RAM and LTE modem, basing efforts on an already existing, mature and stable free platform - the OpenPhoenux GTA04, following the spirit of freedom known from Openmoko devices.