Bunnie Huang recently bought a cellphone for $12. There wasn’t a carrier subsidy, it was contract-free, and unlocked. It wasn’t much to look at, and it wasn’t much compared to an Apple iPhone or a Google Nexus 4, but it had Quad-Band GSM, Bluetooth, MP3 playback, and an OLED display, and a back-it keyboard. Yet it cost $12 retail; boxed, with a charger, a cable and a silicone sleeve, and that means it was produced for far less than $12. As Bunnie says, “…that’s about the price of a large cheese pizza, or a decent glass of wine.”
Unclear how this could be possible, Bunnie tears the phone down to finds some hints. There are no screws and the whole case snaps together, there are almost no connectors inside and everything from the display to the battery is soldered directly to the board. Despite this the phone features a back-lit keypad and decorate lights around the edges.
The secret is probably that the electronics consist of just two major ICs; the Mediatek MT6250DA, and a Vanchip VC5276. The MT6250 is rumored to sell in volume for under $2, but as a westerner it’s almost impossible to engage with the manufacturer by “going through the front door.”
However if you know some Chinese, and the right websites, you can download the schematics, layout files, and software for something much like this phone for free. But it’s not open source, or open hardware, it’s something Bunnie is calling “gongkai” (公开).
Gongkai is a unique hardware ecosystem growing up and out and beyond “shanzhai” (山寨), where things are merely copied or imitated. Instead, it’s a network of ideas, spreading peer-to-peer, but within certain rules. While it’s nothing like the western ideas of IP law, it is uniquely Chinese.
I don’t think that anyone disagrees that the western ideas of IP need a serious overhaul, maybe we should be looking to China for a new direction on how to share our ideas and IP? Maybe a “gongkai” (公开) style ecosystem could work here, as well as there..?