An update from the OpenMoko world

As Sean has now made his latest OpenMoko Announcement last night, this is a good point in time for me to write some more bits. Up to this announcement it was hard for me to publicly state anything, since the whole internal restructuring process has been underway, but not yet publicly announced.

I can only join Sean in his assessment about the superb support of FIC's senior management. They are providing us with the kind of resources we wanted.

But being the realist (well, Sean as optimist would call me pessimist, you know that old story), I also see severe challenges both right now, and ahead.

Whatever you might think: I bet that none of you has not the slightest idea about how many problems the OpenMoko team is fighting all day long. If you're thinking "what's the problem with a purely technical task, i.e. designing hardware and software for an Open phone"? Then my reply would be: It's not that big of a technical problem.

However, the really big issues start as soon as you leave the R&D world. On the one hand, there is the actual hardware production. Many components have incredible lead times (3 months or more), and our yet sort-of-unknown-but-initially-very-low quantities are not particularly helpful either. Any .tw OEM/ODM thinks in different terminology. The kind of production processes, shipping infrastructure, ... is just not meant for low-volume and direct shipment. We obviously knew this from the beginning, but everyone just happily works in their usual mode of operation, ignoring our concerns for many months.

Then think about the various customs / legal / trade issues. If you ship components from Taiwan to mainland china and use them to manufacture a product there, you need a special import license in order to get those products back into Taiwan. This license costs money (and, most of all: Time).

Or another example is the lack of double-tax agreements between Taiwan and the rest of the world. So payments to all our various external consultants all over Europe are taxed twice: Once in Taiwan, a second time in the respective country of residence.

For the last two weeks I have been working on finalizing the floor plan and infrastructure planning for the new FIC Mobile Communications and OpenMoko software groups offices in Taipei. And believe it or not, it is a very long and time consuming fight to ever get what you actually want. We know exactly what kind of servers, switches and routers we want. We know to which height we want to reduce the cubicles. We know what kind of Internet uplink we want. Still, it's close to impossible to get anything done. People will just outright refuse to do what they are asked (and paid!) to do.

Take our new servers as one minor example. You would assume that it is no problem at all to configure high-end servers around here. When doing this in Germany, I usually consult one of the many mailorder stores, go through their extensive list of mainboards and other components, select products based on their availability, price and features, and within 24hours I have everything delivered to my doorstep. 99% of those components are from Taiwanese companies.

Now enter Taiwan. First of all, you will discover that the concept of mailorder or extensive online product lists doesn't exist. "Taiwanese people don't trust e-commerce", is what they tell me. Secondly, you can't just call those places and ask them if they have a certain product, since apparently they would always say yes, only to get you into their store.

If you actually get into the various stores, you will see that almost all of the products you want are not available locally. "Not sold into the Taiwan market" is something that you hear very often. So e.g. the choice of Socket 478 mainboards from ASUS goes down from 52 (German online store) to something like 15-20.

So in the end we were really unable to find anything remotely decent (good performance, chipsets with excellent free software support) locally and I ended up importing Asus and Tyan mainboards from Germany into Taiwan, while buying the other components in Taiwan.

Now I could continue and name dozens of examples like this. If this project was just about _developing_ hardware and software, I would be a happy man, and we could look ahead to complete one device after the other. But it's all the other issues, administrative, political, cultural, sales, finance, accounting, shipping, ... which make people like Sean and me run at something like 20-25% of their usual efficiency, despite putting in at least 180% of regular working hours. And there is nobody who can help this, because nobody non-technical really understands what we're doing here, and why we need to do it different than whatever they might have done it before.