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Brightest open hardware stars are in China

Posted: 15 Jan 2014  Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:hacking  reverse engineering  open-source hardware  IP 

EE Times Chief Community Editor Caleb Kraft sits down with Andrew 'Bunnie' Huang, an American hacker who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering from MIT and author of "Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering," to discuss open-source hardware.

This keynote speaker in particular has been an inspiration to me for quite some time. I had a few moments to talk to Bunnie Huang and asked a few questions.

Caleb Kraft: Where did the name "Bunnie" come from?

Bunnie Huang: There's a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where King Arthur and his knights attack a rather demure looking bunnie, shortly after which the knights yell, "Run away! Run away!" in retreat. This "vorpal bunnie" appears as a character in a Nethack clone called Moria. That is my namesake, picked by my friends in middle school; it was shortened to simply "bunnie" upon matriculation at MIT, due to a character limit at the time on username length.

Kraft: You wrote a book about hacking the Xbox. Who do you think should read it?

Huang: The full title of the book is Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering. Really, the title should be "An Introduction to Reverse Engineering (Hacking the Xbox)," but nobody wants to read a book with the word "engineering" in the title. While the specific examples in the book are a bit dated now, the core material around reverse engineering is still relevant. You can download and read it now for free now at www.nostarch.com/xboxfree.

Kraft: What were you doing before you started reverse engineering the Xbox? What got you started in this area?

Huang: Same thing as I do every night, Pinky... take things apart! In all seriousness, I'm lucky in that what I did before the Xbox event is the same as what I do now—I take things apart, and I build things. I've always liked tinkering with hardware, and I've always worked in both forward and reverse. This is in part why I've resisted being typecast as "the Xbox hacking guy," because that hack doesn't define who I am; it's a snapshot of something I did once upon a time where I got really lucky. It's not a career.

Kraft: Open-source hardware seems to be in its infancy in terms of what business model people will implement. Are there any bright and shining stars you think are doing it well?

Huang: This is a tricky question, because it carries so many assumptions with it. The open hardware community itself still hasn't come to terms with what it even means to be open-source—there are layers of openness in hardware. For example, because I don't disclose to you the smelting process or mining location for the copper used in my circuit boards, does that mean the PCB is closed-source? Because a design uses a chip, but the mask patterns aren't open, is the design closed-source? To "build something from source" has a very different meaning in hardware than in software.

It also assumes that the One True Model of IP is the American model. That's a big assumption; China has a different model for IP. It's not quite the bleak picture of rampant thievery that pundits so blithely tout. But one thing is for sure: The ecosystem is much more "open" than the American model. I can get the schematics design source for lots of products in China, but with unclear or unknown licensing conditions. I call this the "Gongkai" model of open-source. So to some extent, the brightest shining stars in the open hardware world are the Chinese Shanzhai; they've turned this Gongkai IP model into billion-dollar hardware industries.

Kraft: Do you think the rise of OSHW will have an effect on opportunities for embedded systems designers?

Huang: Sure, it's had a big impact on me. Like I said above, I can get schematics for many things in China. So if there's a circuit I'm trying to design and I want to sanity check my approach or look for new ideas, I just open a book of schematics and have a read. I'm hanging out in Shenzhen right now, and across the street is a wonderful bookstore where they have a shelf chock-full of books with nothing but schematics in them. I can spend an afternoon just browsing and learn a lot; there's lots of stuff they don't teach you in text books that are very easily learned by reading schematics for real products that are actually shipping.


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