News Column

Duo raise $878,000 for 'open' computers

June 1, 2014

Kash Cheong

When Singapore-based entrepreneur Andrew Huang was a boy, his father bought him a clone of one of the first computers - the Apple II.

It came without a case, just some bare-bones hardware hooked up to a screen. "When I played with it, I could see the circuit boards which got me curious about what was going on," said the 39-year-old American, better known as "bunnie" among the tech crowd.

The Apple II clone also came with a set of schematics and source code, which allowed him to find out how it worked. Today, he is working with compatriot and coding expert Sean Cross, 31, to build a computer as open as the one that kickstarted his life-long interest in technology.

The project recently raised US$700,000 (S$878,000) from more than 1,000 users on a "crowdfunding" website and the computer - named Novena after the MRT station - will come in several versions that will be shipped out late this year and early next year. They cost between US$550 and US$5,000, although buyers can also make a donation to the project.

"We named all our electronics projects after Singapore MRT stations to reflect where they were conceptualised," said Mr Cross, also known as "xobs".

While most laptops target consumers, Novena targets developers and hobbyists who like to tinker with their machines.

It comes with a case that opens up and reveals its internal hardware, making it easy for engineers or hobbyists to modify. The schematics and circuit board designs are also free to download.

Novena is powered by the Freescale i.MX 6 ARM central processing unit (CPU), one of the few in its class with hardware and software plans freely available so users can modify their computers.

In contrast, today's laptops are mostly closed affairs with Intel and AMD CPUs, said Dr Huang, co-founder of Kosagi, the company which makes Novena. Blueprints for their circuit boards and case designs are typically kept secret, giving users limited freedom to extend their machines, he said.

Dr Huang had originally planned to raise US$250,000 for Novena and was pleasantly surprised to get nearly three times that amount.

"Perhaps because of the consolidation of the notebook market, the niche is larger than we think," said the engineer, who moved to Singapore four years ago to be closer to the Chinese city of Shenzhen, the heart of electronics manufacturing.

His laptop also appeals to a tightly knit community that believes it is essential to build and master your own technology. "Otherwise we risk surrendering knowledge of an important part of our everyday lives to corporate monopolies," he said.

Some Singapore buyers cannot wait to get their Novena. Mr William Hooi, 41, a consultancy director, has ordered the US$2,195 version: "It has good specs, it's made for personal customisation so I can do whatever I want with it."

For more stories covering the world of technology, please see HispanicBusiness' Tech Channel

Source: Sunday Times (Islamabad)

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