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General, Open Hardware, Technology

Something clicks, open hardware, Shanzhai and the Beeb

A week or so ago I wrote about the Open Hardware Summit in New York, one of the talks I wrote about (albeit briefly) was Bunnie Huang’s.

The talk was great and he’s followed it up with an equally good blog post which I suggest you read.Huang was talking about the future of the open source hardware movement, and that in his opinion the future is very bright indeed.

Today on the way home from work I listened to a recent podcast episode of the BBC World Service programme Click. The episode was reporting on the Brighton Digital Festival where the views espoused by Huang were being put into practice.

Huang’s theory is that as Moore’s Law slows down, smaller companies and innovators become more competitive, able to offer neat stable solutions to a variety of sectors which are not worried about performance improvements.

One of the examples he quoted was that of Shanzhai manufacturing. Shanzhai firms specialise in creating ultra-niche mobile phones – from phones with telephoto lens (as in fully functioning telescopic lenses) to multi-sim, digital projection. You name it they have probably done it. It’s all very Q-branch.

They are extremely reactive to customer demand and can turn out products in days rather than months.

Shanzhai manufacturing was one of the first things I had to write about when I worked at the Institute for Manufacturing in Cambridge.

It was also a topic which changed my perception of what manufacturing, enterprise and innovation was all about. I still find it staggering that what it takes a team of 200 engineers and six months for a major telecoms firm to create can effectively be knocked out by a handful of people in a tiny workshop.

Which brings me back to Click. The episode interviewed some UK-based makers, the kind of people putting the Shanzhai-ethos into effect – people who are creating products based around communities and networks of interest.

The festival (like most maker faire’s and events) feature people who want to get underneath the hood, to create new devices from old kit, or to add extra functionality to other devices.

Huang hankers for a return to artisan hardware, small groups of manufacturers churning out bespoke products which value “elegance, optimization and balance… over feature creep”

It’s something the Click episode emphasises too. In the podcast version of the programme Bill Thompson follows a similar thought trajectory:

“There is a real shift going on, you see it in the online conversations going on, you see it in people’s attitudes. There has been a period in which the technology was black box, was closed off where you used what you were given – that’s no longer acceptable, we see that in the maker culture… I’m starting to feel optimistic.”

Exciting times lie ahead.

  • Below is a PDF of the briefing I helped to write, which talks about Shanzhai in more detail. I hasten to add all the clever stuff is by Dr Yongjiang Shi and you should check out his work for more a more academic overview of innovation and enterprise.



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