David Anders: My name is David Anders. I am the senior engineer at Circuitco. Circuitco was founded in 2006 as a contract manufacturing company. We were approached by some individuals within TI to help them assist in creating a low cost platform for development. And that gave birth to the BeagleBoard.org product line. That became our niche market as far as open hardware designs, and that’s what we have been doing for years. Last year, we were approached by Intel to work with them on creating a low cost platform to basically demonstrate the capabilities of Intel architecture devices.
Tim: Now let’s hear a little bit more about that platform -- what is that?
David: That is the MinnowBoard. We created the MinnowBoard based on the Intel Atom E600 series. It is a 32-bit processor. It is running at 1 Gigahertz. It has a wide range of IO and features on board that give it a very unique platform to work on. The best part of it is it is 100 percent open. We provide the design files, the schematic, gerbers, bill of material all released under Creative Common License.
Tim: Now what else does open mean here? Talk about what does that let you do?
David: Open basically means that you can purchase every single one of the components used on this board in quantity of one, and you can create this board yourself if you so choose to. Whether you want to create one, ten, or 10,000, that is free for you to do, and it also gives you the capability of manufacturing variations for OEM designs.
David: Basically, if you look back in 2006, if you wanted to purchase an ARM development platform, you w ere looking at anywhere from $1000 to $3000 and most of them were closed. That’s when BeagleBoard.org came out with the BeagleBoard products and they were sold in the $200 range. If you take that into mind now with the lower cost ARM boards that are being sold for $45 or even down to $25, that market pressure has pushed that cost down very low. We are trying to do the same thing with the x86 platform. If you look right now, in the industrial x86 market, most of the boards are going to be anywhere from $1000 to $3000, and they are closed platforms. By us releasing this board as it is right now, we’ve kind of thrown the first punch trying to make it a more competitive market for open platforms. We hope to see the prices for these things be driven down by more competition.
Tim: Being an x86 board in this market is a mark of some distinction in this market right now; what does that let you do?
David: Basically, this is the first open x86 platform in which all the design files meet the Open Hardware Association’s guidelines to be classified as an open hardware platform. This also allows you to use most applications and design software that is already written for x86 without having to cross compile it. So it gives you a fairly large selection of software that is already existing.
David: Sure. This is the main board itself. It basically comes with a power cord and the board itself, but on this particular version I am demonstrating our accessory board. This is a breakout board that basically gives you access to some of the large speed connections such as I2 C, SPI, GPIO, and UART. This gives you a capability of working with it as an embedded platform.
Tim: Now, that add-on board: how open would you describe that as being?
David: The accessory boards are intended to be open as well. We actually provide an Eagle library file so that you c an design your own, the e-boards that we produced for this will also be released under Creative Common, so that you can manufacture it or anyone else.
Tim: With that kind of accessory, it seems like it’s getting to be crowded right now -- it seems to have some things in common with the Arduino.
David: Yeah, it basically gives you the capability of treating it as a generic Linux platform and work with low level interfaces, and once you learn how to use those, whether it is this platform or another, the interfaces under Linux are exactly the same.
Tim: Now speaking of Linux, as where the Linux platform is right now, talk about what sort of ____4:47 runs with and could run with ____4:50
David: Intel worked with us mainly to demonstrate one of their primary projects which is the Yocto project. The distribution that we shipped with the device is Angstrom Linux and it is build using the Yocto project along with open embedded.
Tim: Would any 32-bit Linux run on this?
David: Any 32 bit Linux that has a 32 bit UEFI support will work with it.
David: There was a lot of pushback that we got after we released the board and the fact that why was It a 32-bit in this day and age when some of the other 64-bit processors were out there. The 32-bit processor we chose had been on the market for quite some time, and so a lot of the issues, bugs, features was well known on this. And really because it was the very first x86 open hardware platform, there were a lot of things that we needed to learn doing this particular design. And using this particular processor made that easy. Now that we understand some of the challenges for doing x86 design, other processor designs may be in the works for the future.
Tim: Now, you’ve been available now for single digits of weeks, I think. How is manufacturing? Has that brought you new knowledge of how things should work?
David: Absolutely. We produced a small batch of these that we sent out to all the major distributors and they’ve sold out extremely quickly. And as of this morning, we began a production line of another 5000 pieces that would be run out to distributors shortly.
Tim: Do you have any idea what kind of people are buying this?
David: We are seeing a wide range of folks that are buying it, anywhere from hobbyists that want to develop something as an automated cap feeder but we are also beginning to see a lot of companies who would normally buy an industrial closed source design to develop a product around, are beginning to buy these as well. Because all of the resources are there for them to review.
Tim: We’ve gotten a glance just now at the board itself and the attachments; we have over here some boards that are connected. Explain how these are different.
David: Well, on the display here we have the BeagleBone Black which is a low cost ARM platform that sells for $45. And on the left here, we have the MinnowBoard. Now, the MinnowBoard sells for $199, and this is definitely not comparing apples-to-apples on the design, but the x86 platform is much more robust in the long term as far as x86 compatibility - you don’t have to cross compile things, but there are tradeoffs in the aspect but it does require more power to operate. The design itself is very robust and stable. So one of the things that we will also see in the future, is these boards will begin to shrink because as we get lower cost platforms, the size of the design will also decrease as well.
Tim: And if someone decides they want to build one of these, and make a working system out of it, this monitor you’ve got hooked up, is that a standard VGA? What sort of outputs can you use on this?
David: This is an off-the-shelf display; we can buy them on eBay. It is basically a miniature HDMI DVI display, but it will work with anything such as a standard 1080p television or if you’ve got an off-the-shelf DVI display that you have previously used with your computer system, it works perfectly fine with that.
Tim: What about things like SATA drives, Ethernet?
David: The board itself comes with a wide variety of peripherals including Gigabit Ethernet, two SATA ports that are available to you, and it has got dual channel PCI on the expansion header. It also contains a macro USB port. It also has inputs for microphone and headphone. So it is a very robust platform to begin working with.
Tim: David, let me ask you just 2 more questions: First, we talked before, you mentioned something about the graphics hardware. You mentioned the difficulty of getting a fully open graphics stack. Talk about that for a little bit.
David: Well, we started off with the definition from the Open Hardware Association, and that lets the qualifications to use the term open hardware. One of the things that many people disagree on that particular qualification is, the processor we are using has a closed GPU, meaning we don’t have documentation and only binary support for it. And for a lot of people that basically says it is not open. The difference here is Intel has recognized that open hardware platforms are important and valuable, and as long as we continue to show them that we want those parts of the processor to be open and show that those are valuable for us to have and work with, more companies like Intel, Texas Instruments, Freescale, all these companies will start seeing daylight and start trying to make those available to us. But we have to continue pushing the term open even to the GPU.
Tim: And my last question to you. You hinted at, and I don’t know how much you can say, but what’s the future of this sort of x86 embedded board?
David: Well, we can look at the history of BeagleBone Black, and in the aspect that the original BeagleBoard sold for $200, but BeagleBone Black sells for $45, it is smaller, more robust, and that happened in a relatively short time. Because we have thrown out the first volley on the open hardware x86 platforms, I suspect within a very short time, we are going to be in the same type of ballpark.
Tim: Let me press my luck -- one more thing. Talk about the organization that goes behind BeagleBoard and the MinnowBoard.
David: Sure. BeagleBoard.org was created as a 501c nonprofit organization, and we have the board, and we basically administer it, and we are doing the same thing with MinnowBoard.org, it will become a nonprofit organization to administer to the design files, in the right spirit and everything to make sure that it is properly administered.