The makers of the Novena laptop wanted to build a PC unlike anything on the market. While there are plenty of laptops that can run open source operating systems like Ubuntu or Fedora, the Novena is designed from the ground up with openness in mind. The hardware schematics are available to the public, and there are no proprietary drivers.
But a computer like that doesn’t come cheap. At first, designers Bunnie Huang and Sean Cross figured there was a market for exactly two Novena laptops: they built some for themselves.
When members of the public expressed interest in the concept, team launched a crowdfunding campaign for folks who wanted their own devices — with a Novena system board going for a pledge of $500, a laptop running $1995, and an “heirloom laptop” with a hand-built wooden case going for pledges of $5,000.
With about 4 weeks left in the campaign, the team is well on the way to meeting the original $250,000 goal. So they’re announcing a few stretch goals.
Update: The project and all stretch goals have been fully funded, which means 3D graphics drivers are on the way… along with the breakout board, laptop, and everything else.
In an interview with Liliputing, Bunnie Huang says what sets this project apart from other crowd-funded efforts to deliver open source devices like Canonical’s ill-fated Ubuntu Edge project is that the Novena laptop is designed for a small, core group of hackers, developers, and DIY enthusiasts. If a few hundred people want to contribute and help make it possible to build a few hundred units, that’ll be a success story.
There are no plans to turn Novena into a big business and produce thousands of devices. But if the campaign for this wacky, open hardware laptop with an integrated FGPA, a 1.2 GHz Freescale i.MX6 quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU, and Vivante GC2000 graphics is successful, it could encourage other folks who want to build things that might not be commercially viable to turn to the community for support. It could also show chip makers and other hardware companies that there’s a market for open platforms (albeit a small one) and that some people are willing to pay premium prices for this type of product.
If the project raises $250,000 the plan is to start shipping hardware to backers by December. But if the campaign raises even more money, it’ll help fund even more work. Here’s what happens at the following levels:
- $300,000: Development of open source 3D drivers for the laptop’s graphics chip
- $350,000: Breakout board with GPIO pins, an analog/digital converter, and more
- $400,000: Romulator circuit board for NAND Flash emulation
- Around $500,000: Myriad-RF software-defined radio
The first goal would help fund the development of an open source driver for Vivante GC2000 graphics. While chip maker Freescale provides all the documentation required to develop open source software for its i.MX6 CPU, the Vivante graphics core uses closed-source drivers. But the Novena Team has reached out to Linux graphics driver expert Jon Nettleton who has agreed to help reverse engineer 2D and 3D graphics drivers for the chip.
Huang says that if that project is successful it won’t just apply to the Novena laptop. The 3D graphics drivers could work with any device using the graphics chip.
Don’t want a Novena laptop, but do want to help fund development of those drivers? There’s a new $30 “Buy Jon a Six Pack” pledge tier.
The other goals all involve hardware such as a development breakout board and mass production of project like Huang’s Romulator and the Myriad-RF module which supports most radio bands.
If the project hits $350,000 the team will include a General Purpose Breakout Board, or GPBB with every Novena system shipped.
At the $400,000 level, the ROMulator FLASH ROM emulator will be included. It’s a board with 256MiB (or 268MB) of DDR3 memory and the ability to emulate a ROM device.
The Myriad-RF board is a software defined radio that would let users access pretty much any cellphone band with the laptop and use it for mobile broadband or to make phone calls. It supports LTE, CDMA, TD-CDMA, W-CDMA, WiMAX, and other radio bands.
There’s already a design for a Novena-compatible Myriad-RF design, but the device will only be produced if around 200 people make pledges to show interest in the product.
This goal’s a little more tricky. If the team gets to either the $500,000 funding level or gets 200 backers for the desktop, laptop, or heirloom systems, then anyone who contributes enough money for a desktop or higher-end system will get a MyriadRF board with a retail value of around $299.
Overall the idea behind an open hardware platform like Novena is that you don’t need an official breakout board, radio, or software — you can create your own using the existing documentation as a starting point. That’s not something everyone will be able to do — and not everyone attracted to open source software like Linux, Firefox, and LibreOffice has the technical chops to fully take advantage of a device like the Novena laptop. That’s OK — those folks aren’t necessarily the target audience for this particular device.
But if the Novena comes into the world as a result of this crowdfunding campaign, it could herald the way for more affordable open hardware devices in the future… or at least for additional expensive niche devices.
You can find out more about the Novena laptop and the new stretch goals at the crowdfunding site Crowd Supply.