The $12 Cellphone

Computers & Mobile
The  Cellphone

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..?

(via bunnie:studios)

14 thoughts on “The $12 Cellphone

  1. Fritoeata says:

    We in the west are lying to ourselves if we think that IP is secure when we send things to China. On one hand, this is really cool to see a “cheap” option, but at what ultimate cost(long-term)? Ripping off closed source ideas is far different than reversing something. Reading patents and circumventing them is what drives innovation and is one of the things that makes the west great!

    I’m not hatin’… I just think people need to remember ethics and how it will ultimately affect our strategic economic/physical/intellectual stance. Has anyone read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”? This is applicable in many ways.

    1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot says:

      There is very little innovative about most patent protected designs these days.

      The very idea that reading and ‘circumventing’ patents is necessary to innovation is a crock. Patents were meant to be built on and improved not ‘circumvented’.

      There is also the question of possible back doors included in cheap versions. Then again the same questions still exist for the more expensive versions as the US President and such have to get specially made ones for them by US contractors.

  2. vincentw56 says:

    I bought one at WalMart for $14 and you can do it all day long.

  3. Roberto Alsina (@ralsina) says:

    You can buy a Android 4.0 smartphone for around $50, no subsidies, no contract, free shipping from …

  4. ftkalcevic says:

    Who needs such a featured packed device? Drop the mp3 player and bluetooth connectivity and I’m sure they can halve the price,

  5. Antares165 says:

    Remember when calculators cost a fortune? Now you can find a full function one at the dollar store that has more computing power than mainframes of the 60’s. Faster, smaller, cheaper; adjectives that most certainly describe the way things are these days. For the most part, it really is a good thing… well, except when things get so small I’m forever losing them! :-)

  6. Edu says:

    Did someone found the schematics?

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Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer, who is spending a lot of his time thinking about the Internet of Things. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.

View more articles by Alasdair Allan


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