Back in January we ran an article on using open source hardware to build a laptop that was as NSA-proof as it is possible to get, and Project Novena was at the font of the pack. Even here however, while all the most critical components were open source and had been built from the ground up, (‘The motherboard, battery board, and display adapter board are designs from whole cloth. Every trace on those PCBs was placed by my hand’), some components were off-the-shelf, including screen, keyboard, hard drive, power supply, ARM processor and car battery pack. Project Novena nevertheless represented the most completely open source laptop ever designed, and it is now available to buy.
Interest in open source hardware was spurred last year by Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scale with which the NSA has interfered with commercial computer technology development, leading to widespread suspicion that not just software, but the underlying code that drives commercial hardware may have been tampered with so that it could introduce backdoors and the like into systems, even when the software was considered secure.
As with open source software, the idea with open source hardware is for talented and privacy minded individuals to build the hardware themselves, and make all plans and programming freely available for collaboration and peer review, hopefully ensuring that nothing nasty is hidden away in the designs somewhere. In addition to this, the growing open source movement is becoming widely respected as a driver for innovation, of which the Novena is a perfect example.
The developers of the Novena, Andrew ‘bunnie’ Huang and Sean ‘xobs’ Cross, have now put their creation on sale through Kickstarter website Crowd Supply. Backers can choose to buy just the motherboard, or a cut down ‘all-in one desktop’ version, but the laptop itself costs $1,195. For those who really want to lay down some serious cash on the project an ‘Heirloom’ version is available for $5000, designed by Portland artist Kurt Mottweiler, and made from aluminum and gorgeously handcrafted wood.
The machine is somewhat underpowered by the standards of today’s commercial offerings (it uses a 1.2GHz quad-core ARM processor more often found in mobile phones, for example), but to judge it on this level is somewhat missing the point – this is a project for tinkerers and hackers (on the standard model the screen is ‘the wrong way round’ to allow easy access to the case internals, and the case contains plenty of spare room for hackers add their own hardware projects), or for those wishing to invest in innovation.
‘This is not a machine for the faint of heart. It’s an open source project, which means part of the joy – and frustration – of the device is that it is continuously improving. This will be perhaps the only laptop that ships with a screwdriver.’
The Crowd Supply kickstarter aims to raise $250,000 and funding ends on 18 May. Backers do not get any kind of stake in the company, but will get a Novena computer at a much lower price than will be possible after the campaign ends.