Google’s ‘Project Ara’ – does competence matter?

Does competence matter when proposing a new platform?

We did recently found about the ‘Project Ara’ of Goggle – about a platform for creating modular smartphones.

First of all we are glad that Goggle is realizing the importance of connecting hardware outside of the devices based on their platform and finally opening this area for development.

Apple, on the other hand is a hopeless case. The most popular way of connecting devices on iOS devices has been through the audio port – ridiculous from the perspective of a hardware and system software developer.

There is a separate web site and documents -
 Project Ara , Module Developers Kit (MDK)
Release 0.11 (alpha) , May 28, 2014
which bear the Google’s copyright.

The first look at the document shows it has been created by people skilled in mechanical design.

However most likely they:
- did not hold a soldering iron in their hand
- and, did not read any technical reference manual of a chip
- and, did not write any device driver
- and, did not set a foot in Shenzhen, China

So, what specifically is objectionable in the ‘project ara’ doc?

1. Regarding mechanical design

While it is innovative, I am not sure putting connectors and modules on the back of a smartphone is a good idea.

It will definitely increase the thickness of the device , and the bulge in my pocket.

Making a connector out of individual pins, using magnets, laser cut holders spells – exotic and expensive!!!

Using standard (cheap!!!) connectors, places on the edges of the device.

2. Regarding electrical design

The proposal defines pins using LVDS pairs – table 3.13 . I did not know yet of and would be very surprised to find an ARM SOC having LVDS level signals.

The voltage level on the power pins is not firmly defined – hooked directly to the battery.

Define standard voltage level – for ex. 3.3V as the voltage on power pins.

The ARM SOC has a combination of the following interfaces on pins – GPIO, I2C, SPI, SDIO, USB, PCI Express (specific chips).

Place on separate connectors and wire to them directly or through buffers the following interfaces -
- I2C and/or SPI
- USB 2.0 host
- GPIO, and/or parallel bus implementation
- PCI Express (if available )

3. Regarding system design

The doc defines the system as a network architecture around MIPI M-PHY and UniPro protocols – allowing the modules to communicate with each other.

The modules have to have a bridge based on LVDS level signals from MIPI M-PHY and UniPro protocols to – I2C, GPIO, USB …

The above system design over-complicates the system design. The ARM SOC already natively have a number of interfaces. It is easy to wire directly I2C, GPIO, USB … to connectors.
There is already kernel level support for some of the interfaces, and additional support would be easyer without the need to write software for GPIO to MIPI M-PHY/UniPro control and then from MIPI M-PHY/UniPro to I2C, SPI, GPIO, SD … emulation.

4. Regarding manufacturing

Prototype hardware for ‘Project Ara’ is available not directly from Google but from a Chinese OEM/ODM – AQS / .

Regardless of all assurances, when putting licensees in the hands of  OEM/ODMs Google has to explain to the licensee that they will not completely own the design.

A company owns the design when they select components , design the pc board and enclosure.
PCB Manufacturing and assembly in China is fine as long as a company knows what are they doing.

We do not want to criticize only.
We can actually write and offer a counter proposal incorporating the above points.

How about creating and having an alternative – ‘project ARS‘?!

Comparing indiegogo with kickstarter

We did decide to place the same project that we have developed on 2 major funds raising platforms – indiegogo and kickstarter.

Both of them have similar project layout including – video section, story behind the project, pledges/rewards offered, personal bio of the presenter…

And then the subtle and not so subtle differences come.

Kickstarter is the East coast ‘child’ maybe getting a bit of the large urban and rush culture of NYC, while the West coast born Indiegogo has the Silicon Valley influence out there in San Francisco.

Once you develop a project in Indiegogo you can make it ‘live’ right away – no reviews, no questions asked. It seems the platform is less of a individual and more of a business oriented – but embraces and includes single person or start-up businesses.

On the other hand kickstarter has the prolonged process of review and feedback – after you submit a project. Kickstarter seems have a long list of rules a project has to confirm to – and many of these are very subjective and sometimes vague.

The platform seem more oriented towards individuals and often embraces non profit causes – like film making, arts projects … etc.

Regardless of the amount of funds raised in Indiegogo you can still get the funds at the end of the raising period, altough with larger percentage going to Indiegogo.

But a Kickstarter project which did not meet the funding target at the end of the raising period will be unsuccessful and the funds returned back to people who pledged money.

So , place your bets please – Kickstarter or Indiegogo ?

Developing a crowd-funding project

We have developed and did release crowd funding project on 2 platforms:

The posts brings an insider view on what is takes to develop a
project for the first time.

The funds raising plaform project layout includes normally – video section, story behind the project, pledges/rewards offered, personal bio of the presenter…

Maybe the first thing to do is to develop and write couple of pages of a story. The story may include a bit of controvercy and technical details.

The number of pledges/rewards and the amounts asked, is tied and interfaces with the funding target and the period of funds raising.
A low risk project may put low funding target and relatively short
raising period. A high risk project may have to put a high funding
target – to have sufficient resources to complete the project.

The video of the project is often considered the most important part of the project – the message , story, theme , mood is what may either excites and brings people to pledge money or not.

While the acting in our video may need improvement, we believe the script and the story are relevant, and are going to resonate and bring people to pledge funds for the project.

One little mentioned element in developing of a project is the
choice and use of video editor – it may make or break a project. We went through 5-6 different software packages before choosing – wondershare.

We found that the widely mentioned – microsoft movie maker has serious deficiencies. In addition to lack of necessary features, the user license agreement states really questionable practices a user has to agree to.

So , place your bets please – Kickstarter or Indiegogo ?

My —key— is bigger than your -key-

I take this post to respond to recent tweets regarding the Kickstater and Indiegogo campaigns:

***Dmitry Chestnykh @dchest , did tweet this:
Oh look, another snake oil anti-NSA “crypto” Kickstarter – @ARSTech. My key is bigger than yours!

I appreciate the sense of humor – it makes us king of macho, showing up with a big —key—!

However I disagree with the snake oil comparison – I offer one solution, while there are number of other solutions available.

*** CodesInChaos @CodesInChaos, did tweet this:
@dchest @veorq @ARSTech If you pay 499$ you get the luxury of *updates*, for 999$ you may beta-test their crypto.

We do not force any contributor to give us $499 or $999.
A person giving us one or the other amount realizes that it will support our development – adding features to existing products or developing new products.

*** Root Labs @rootlabs , did tweet this:
@dchest @veorq @ARSTech How about less waste on new, lousy crypto and redoubling efforts to review/improve what we have?

I am not sure what is it they refer as having. Mentioning ‘review/improve’ may point to having an open source project.
In my opinion an open source project does:
- give the NSA direct knowledge of the work of the solution, no need even to reverse engineer
- make a less flexible , rigid solution, unable to evolve and change quickly, if needed

In general, I appreciate the comments and feedback – even the controversy.
Thanks guys!

Hello world – again!

Welcome to our updated blog!

We did use pretty old blog software release – we did install the latest available.

The current release allows better spam protection, and integration with search engines and social networks,


Getting in the ‘Thunderbolt’ club

How much do you like to wait in line, or jump hoops?

‘Thunderbolt’ refers to an initiative of Apple and Intel to create an interface which multiplexes a peripheral interface (PCI Express / PCIe) with a display interface (DisplayPort / DP) .

The interface is implemented as proprietary chips by Intel and proprietary connectors by Apple, which then go into a variety of products.

Currently Thunderbolt is run as an exclusive club, with a line in front of it, and bouncers deciding once in a while to let somebody in.

For around 2 years we, ARS Technologies did go to the Thunderbolt developer’s site – initially on the , then as a separate web site. We did send several times a ‘contact us’ message that we are interested in developing products – got turned down, politely.

Finally, several weeks ago instead of a rejection we have got an application form from Intel. While it did contain standard questions on describing our type of products and use, several statements did jump as big red flags to us, like:
- a requirement to guarantee meeting minimum quantity of 10,000 Thunderbolt components/chips purchased per year
- a requirement to certify our Thunderbolt products with a testing company

We would be happy to sell millions of Thunderbolt products however the quantity depends on our customers purchasing and using our products. We can not predict the success in advance.

In addition, in my conversation with a Thunderbolt product manager from Intel, I found that we may need to sign a non-disclosure-agreement / NDA with Intel to get even the basic information.

We don’t want to know the secrets of Intel. A chip which has been in production for years, has to have a ‘tech.ref. manual’ and/or ‘user’s guide’ document with sufficient information to design hardware and software.

When we did submit our application, we did state our own concerns and requirements, in an e-mail, as follows:
Intel provides lots of information freely – like for ex. on processors and chipsets. It is sufficient for both designing hardware and software. Why isn’t the thunderbolt info sufficient for both designing hardware and software not yet freely available?

As we spoke we can not guarantee the product can meet a minimum annual sales volume of 10K units/year.
Intel will need to relax the requirements on 10K units/year.
In addition – if the distributor which Intel is using (mouser) puts a high minimum purchase qty , we can not meet this requirement as well.

Will be expecting a replay.
Still waiting in line to get in the club …

Pre-requisites to create a product like ‘raspberry pi’

Meeting the creator of ‘raspberry pi’ got me into thinking of what does it take to create a product like this. I like to start a discussion on the hardware design of a product like this.

The hardware of the ‘raspberry pi’ can be abstracted to – an ARM system on chip (soc), memory, and few supporting components – chips + connectors.

The most important part in the list is definitely the ARM soc. There are lots of manufacturers of ARM chips – the question is how do a designer selects one or another maker?

Here is the criteria I like to use:
- the chip has to be in regular production and available to purchase from a single unit and up; if I can go to an electronics store and purchase a single Intel/AMD processor, I want to be able to look for a distributor and purchase a part which is available on stock;
- there has to be freely available, detailed documentation on the ARM soc; I do not want to sign non-disclosure agreements, or pay a licensing fee to access the documentation;
- if the manufacturer has proprietary firmware/software components required for the work of the ARM soc, these components have to be available in at least in binary form, bundled with the soc

A list of the major makers include – Qualcomm, Samsung, NVIDIA, TI, Marvel, Broadcom, Apple (if available), Rockchip (China) …
The above criteria disqualifies currently lots of the chip makers – however things may or will change.

Comments, opinions, ideas ?

Meeting the creator of ‘raspberry pi’

On Apr 2nd I met the creator of ‘raspberry pi’ computer system. The meeting was held in the Vancouver hack space / VHS – and was a short presentation of the history of ‘raspberry pi’, followed by questions & answers.

In general I appreciate the initiative to create and sell inexpensive $25-35 ARM based systems.

My impressions -
- trumpeted as open sourced, the hardware evolution is tightly controlled by a small group of ‘trustees’ in the UK;
- the design is tied up with Broadcom chips and may be very difficult to switch to other manufacturers;
- a small display related software/firmware is proprietary; any manufacturer who wants to make the hardware will most likely require license from the chip maker;
- geared towards the schools, it will share the same space with smart phones, tablets; when you add a display, keyboard, power supply … to the $25-35 system the total cost becomes comparable with low end smart phones and tablets;
- clever marketing to the point of over-hyping, strategic relationships with promoters;

On business plans – why do you actually do not need one

Do you want to operate your business in a ’straight jacket’ or have the freedom to choose a direction?

I was reluctant to offer my opinion however too much advice is given in favor of writing a business plan. If we look at the interests behind the advice – it comes from investors, or ‘coaches/trainers’, or people who did take money before starting a business.

A first time entrepreneur would take this advice as the ‘right’ way, or the only way to start a business.

In the psychology there is a principle called ‘commitment and consistency’. If you write a business plan essentially you make a very strong commitment which you need to follow with consistency.

You would be very lucky if after starting the business it will turn out exactly as you wrote it on the business plan.
Most of the times you need to make small or big corrections which will mean spending time and convincing people outside of your business, instead of working on your products, and/or marketing, and/or sales.

You may not want to take my word for it, so it is good to bring a good and big example – Facebook.
The story of the company has been well documented – in a book and in a movie.

The business did start as a kind of a meeting place allowing computer geeks to approach hot girls. It did continuously evolve to become the online global connecting place it is today.
Did Mark Zuckerberg ever write a business plan?!

Myths and reality of H1B

How easy it is to hire someone like Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system, to work in the United States?
Bill Gates, a founder of Microsoft, and a number of leaders of technology companies advocate increasing or entirely lifting the limit of the H1B  visas issued for hiring foreign skilled workers.

Yet, at the same time, some domestic US high-tech worker feels that their own position is threatened.
Myth 1 – We already have enough foreign engineers in the US.
Reality – The current limit of H1B visas is 65,000 per year plus some number of advanced degree visas. This category includes hiring not only programmers and engineers, but a wide range of other skilled positions.
Considering that there are at least several million domestically occupied programmers and engineers, the foreigners are a little fraction of the total workforce of the particular occupation.
Myth 2 – These people are willing to work day and night, for pennies.
In reality, the conditions of the employment of a foreign ’skills’ worker require a US employer to offer the same employment conditions as offered to the domestic employees, and at least the average pay for the work done. Normally the foreigners are neither overworked, nor severely underpaid.
Myth 3 – There is already an army of foreign engineers wanting to come to the country.

Reality – Finding of a talented foreign worker is not an easy task. Persuading them to come to work and live in a different country and culture in the US is even more difficult. Faced with the uncertainty of being allowed to work in the US, a foreign professional may choose to stay and work in their own country, or go to any other country which actually welcomes foreign professionals.