Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Why does it matter? Keyboards for FOSS

1. having actions and thoughts in alignment
2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished
3. a state of accuracy that gives strength

In 2007 we began shipping laptops and desktops to people who wanted Linux-specific computers. One day I had a --FREEZE-- moment.

Packaging a laptop to be shipped, as I began to close the lid I saw... the logo of an operating system we don't use. It was plain as day on the Start key.

It shocked me. How could we, as a Linux / FOSS supporter, in good conscience, ship out a laptop with only the insides, the hidden part, being Free and Open Source Goodness while the outside was obviously something else?

We found a manufacturer in the US who could do the custom keys for us and took a deep sigh of relief. Whew. Our laptops now had an Ubuntu key. (Later a Tux key, then later, after the key manufacturer went out of business, Ubuntu sticker / Tux sticker.)

A few months later I realized the less obvious -- every desktop we shipped out would end up with a keyboard that's easily available. It would end up with a similar lack of congruity / lack of integrity.
CC-Attribution/ShareAlike Wikisoft


After all the hard work we do to make Free and Open Source, all the late nights and unpaid grunt work and we end up with someone else's logo on it? What a waste.

We did R&D on an Ubuntu keyboard and ordered 100 of them. They were most popular with the Italians. The keyboards were $25 and shipping was $28, so they paid more for shipping than for the keyboard itself but they ordered them anyway and often sent their Thanks. It was a gratifying project.

After the Ubuntu keyboards sold out, people kept asking for Linux-branded keyboards. We found a manufacturer who would do them, but made a mistake. We ordered a small run of them without doing testing. We figured, “What could be so difficult about making a custom keyboard?” That was the first and last time we made a mistake like that.

The key responsiveness wasn't right. We stopped selling them. If coders were putting so much effort into writing clean code, the least we could do is make high quality hardware to match.
Keyboard in backpack, CC-SA, Earl Malmrose

After that we were a bit nervous about quality. Earl, our R&D lead began working with OEMs to build a quality keyboard. He rejected all of them except one, a keyboard that he hauled around in his backpack to differenet conferences for more than two years. If the keyboard could handle being carried in a backpack (being jolted, twisted, dropped, stepped on, spilled on) then it could pass our quality test.

But, the OEM's minimum run is 1,000. They would prefer we do 10,000 but 1,000 is plenty for an initial run.

We figured that it was probably likely we could find 1,000 people in the world who loved Linux enough to want to have a keyboard that showed it. But how to fund it?
ZaReason works backwards from most companies -- instead of asking, "how much can we charge" like most companies do, when we are working on a new product we base the price on, "How little do we have to charge in order to do the project properly and support it long-term?"

It's "how little" vs "how much", polar opposites. It's the FOSS way of approaching the exchange of tangible goods. So, funding a run of 1,000 keyboards wasn't in the budget because there was no budget, no surplus.

Whenever ZaReason does have surplus (usually by accident, by having a product that's more popular than we anticipated) we either use that surplus for R&D to create products like the ZaTab, a rooted tablet with an open bootloader, or we give the excess away.

Glyn Moody's book, excellent read
I asked around about the funding issue and several really smart people including Glyn Moody of Rebel Code fame and others encouraged us to use Kickstarter.

But that would best be covered in a Part 2 post tomorrow when my eyes aren't so bleary.

Teaser: I will be asking for photos and videos clip contributions. If you have some eye candy that shows FOSS goodness we might be able to use it for the Kickstarter video. We also need a few photos of truly dirty keyboards.

For more details check in again tomorrow! Thanks!

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