Will the Next Generation of Computers be Crowdsourced? Maybe


If you have any doubts that the world of PC design has stagnated – looking at you Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and whoever else is left standing this week – the current wave of crowdsourced projects in bringing hardware from ideas to reality confirms it.  But it's an open question if crowdsourced designs can be more than boutique experiments where major manufacturers fear to tread.

Exhibit A for the crowd sourcing wave is Eve V, a 2-in-1 tablet scheduled to be available for order on Indiegogo November 21 with the production devices shipping to customers "in the first few months" of 2017. The Eve community which contributed to setting specifications will get a shot at ordering one of an initial run of 500 units through Indiegogo. Yes, that's not a typo, 500 units available worldwide. I suspect this number may get bumped up by a zero or two, depending on Indiegogo demand.

With about a month to go, Eve hasn't set pricing or final specifications, but the community of discussion has bubbled up a design around a 7th generation Intel Core M/Core i - Y series; 8 or 16 GB of RAM; SSD options of 128, 256, and/or 512GB; a touch screen of 12 inches with more details "TBA"; a N-Trig pen/stylus that's Windows Ink compatible; a wireless keyboard with "more TBA"; and battery life around 10 hours for daily use with exact size "TBA."  Other specs bandied about include support for USB Type-C, couple of other USB 3.1 ports, detachable keyboard, 3.5mm audio jack, a case machined out of aluminum, kick-stand for the screen and a fingerprint sensor built into the power button. A lot of "TBA" going on makes me wonder how long it is going to take between order placement and delivery if specs haven't been finalized yet.

Eve's website says the Eve V development is "fully funded" with Indiegogo users paying for manufacturing. Intel has invested and is providing engineering design, says the Finnish start-up, but how much money is going in has yet to be announced other than "six figures".  Intel Capital doesn't do a deal less than multiple millions, so a $1 million to $5 million R&D investment is non-trivial.

                   Image via Bigstock

I'm not sure if you can create a sustainable business by selling 500 units at a time.  At an average order of $1500 per device, you're talking $750,000 before materials and production costs.  On the other hand, you don't have the traditional sales and marketing overhead, so maybe it is a wash.

Eve is following the path of the Android-based Superbook project currently making its way out of Kickstarter into production.  The Andronium OS and Superbook launched this summer, raising nearly $3 million dollars from over 16,700 backers, with the initial concept dating back to December 2014 with a simpler Andronium "dock" station bringing together a stand/charger for an Android phone, HDMI display port and 3 full size USB ports.

Feedback from the Kickstarter Andronium dock shaped the Superbook and its simple concept. Simply load the Andronium app onto an Android smartphone and connect the Superbook "shell" with a USB cable to get a fully functionally laptop.  I'd call the "shell" a Chromebook, but it doesn't have a processor or memory.  All the compute power and storage reside in your phone, making the Superbook just a 11.6 inch display connected to a keyboard with a multi-touch touchpad and android navigation keys, plus a large battery, so you can charge up your smartphone while doing the things you'd normally do with a laptop.

Early supports put down $85 to get a Superbook, a custom USB-OTG cable, and a charging adapter in January, while most regular supports are going to see shipments in February 2017 onward and have paid anywhere from $99 to $159 to get the Superbook, a custom cord bundle, beta access club membership, and a universal side mount for smartphones.

If you want to order a Superbook now, the basic model starts at $109 for a 768p resolution display. Adding 1080p resolution and backlit keys bumps the basic price up to $164.  Add $40 for shipping ($30 for California) to get one in March 2017.

The Superbook is a concept that will further confuse the lines between laptop, tablet, and phone.  I'd love to have a Superbook so I could stop carrying around a laptop and a tablet, allowing me to concentrate all of my stuff onto a single device. If Google had a half a clue, they'd buy Superbook immediately and get it plugged into all of its distribution channels, because I'd pick up one at Best Buy today. It's cheap enough that I could write it off if it doesn't work out, but I should be able to do all of the basics I need when I'm out of the office.

Both Eve V and Superbook are exploring new end-user computing hardware.  Will major manufacturers follow suit in quietly (or not so quietly) starting crowdsourcing projects of their own? Facebook arguably started this trend in the data center with its Open Compute project for server and network hardware, while it's only a matter of time before the (rapidly getting dull) smartphone industry gives crowdsourcing a try. 

A few companies have used Kickstarter and Indiegogo as their own start-up farms, but I'm betting that Microsoft will simply crib what specs seem to attract buyers and roll it into future Surface hardware while Amazon, Google or Samsung will end up buying Superbook down the road. 

Edited by Maurice Nagle
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