Books You Should Read: The Hardware Hacker

There’s no one quite like Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang. His unofficial resume begins with an EE degree from MIT, the author of Hacking the Xbox, creator of the Chumby, developer of the Novena, the first Open Source laptop, and has mentored thousands of people with dozens of essays from his blog.

Above all, Bunnie is a bridge across worlds. He has spent the last decade plying the markets of Shenzhen, working with Chinese manufacturers, and writing about his experiences of taking an idea and turning it into a product with the help of Chinese partners. In short, there is no person better suited to tell the story of how Shenzhen works, what can be done, and how to do it.

Bunnie’s The Hardware Hacker ($29.95, No Starch Press) is the dead tree expression of years of living and working in Shenzhen, taking multiple products to market, and exploring the philosophy that turned a fishing village into a city that produces the world’s electronic baubles.

This is not Bunnie’s first book on Shenzhen. Earlier this year, The Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen was released through CrowdSupply, and it’s the perfect book to keep on your carry on for your flight to Hong Kong. It’s a phrase book, designed to help non-Mandarin speakers get off the plane, find a bathroom, buy a SIM card, tell a taxi to drive to the border, and find a reel of 4.7 uF SMD electrolytic capacitors at the sprawling Hua Qiang Bei markets.

view-of-hqb-shenzhen-lychee-parkThe Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen is something you want to read before heading to the Chinese consulate to get your visa, and it’s a mandatory item for your carry on, but it’s book-ness is questionable. It’s a guide, really. You’ll be able to find your hotel and a bathroom with The Essential Guide, but you won’t be able to make sense of anything. The Essential Guide doesn’t tell you the sellers in the electronic market stall can turn a 2 GB SD card into one that reports 16 GB of storage with the press of a button. This book doesn’t tell you Open Source doesn’t mean what you think it means. There isn’t a single word on what Design for Manufacture actually means.

Consider The Hardware Hacker the prerequisite for stuffing The Essential Guide into your luggage. Instead of a survival guide, The Hardware Hacker will tell you how to succeed at whatever endeavor brought you to Shenzhen in the first place. It is, at its core, the primer for understanding the culture of making something in China, how to build thousands of things, and why Open Hardware works.

The Shanzhai and Gongkai

The West has a few ideas about Open Source that basically boil down to, ‘everything must be open source’ or ‘everything should be open source’. The former ideology results in GPL, whereas the latter results in the more permissive licenses. Either way, these licenses are derived from a hack of sorts on copyright. The creator of a piece of software, a painting, or a ship hull has an automatic, exclusive rights over the work’s use and distribution. These rights include the right to give the work away, and to give the work away under conditions. All of this is fairly well codified in the legal system, and even though a lot of the thought that has gone into the last few decades of Open Source hasn’t been tested in the courts, it at least makes sense. China does not have anything resembling copyleft; for that, you would need some semblance of copyright.

fernvale-gongkai-phone-thumbIn China, Open Source is gongkai. It’s a system of Open Source that is completely unlike anything seen in the West. That’s not to say arguments for and against BSD don’t happen in Mandarin; that’s another word, though. For English speakers, the literal translation of Open Source (in capital letters) is kaiyuan. From what Bunnie writes, including a license with your source in China is rare.

Gongkai isn’t so much a license or philosophy, but a way of doing business through sharing. Under this system, if you were to create a design, you would simply give the blueprints away, making sure to add your name and phone number in the corner. Blueprints are traded, improved upon, and constantly remade. The result is a complete lack of version control, but an absolutely democratic system of technological improvement.

This system of open source (lowercase) has led to the rise of the shanzhai, the term for underground or unaffiliated engineers. These shanzhai are the people responsible for Ferrari-shaped cell phones, the infamous $12 cell phone, and bizarre products whose feature set is a word soup. Put some shanzhai in a factory, and they’ll iterate over hundreds of designs, creating smart watches years before the Apple Watch.

Culture

Bunnie is, after all, an expert in the culture of Chinese manufacturing. The stories from The Hardware Hacker wouldn’t be out of place in any Western factory or distributor. Yes, you will find people selling reprogrammed and relabeled SD cards, and you will find counterfeit handbags made on a ghost shift. These are aberrations, or at least that’s the impression I got from The Hardware Hacker.

poorly_made_in_china-cover
Not!

Earlier this year, we took a look at another book on Chinese manufacturing culture, Poorly Made In Chinaand the impression the author gives could not be more different from Bunnie’s description of Shenzhen.

The backdrop of Poorly Made is the author, Paul Midler, acting as middleman between a cosmetics tycoon in Jersey and a shampoo factory somewhere in China. Where Bunnie tells us that a factory needs to get paid, and they’ll only get paid by delivering what they promise, Midler’s China could not be more different. Stories of the manufacturer bottling mint shampoo when a floral scent was ordered were par for the course, thanks to the mint fragrance being a few cents cheaper. Midler’s factories were dirty, and the only way to get the upper hand in a negotiation was to out-scheme the other party.

Bunnie’s China is nothing like this. Yes, you’ll find schemers and shysters, but you’ll find those in New York, London, and Berlin, too. Taken as a whole, Bunnie tells us there’s nothing inherently unscrupulous about manufacturing in China.

Which of these realities is closer to the truth is open to debate. There would obviously be a difference in an electronics manufacturer in Shenzhen and a factory that produces shampoo a few hours outside the city.  I think, though, Bunnie may have a better grasp here; contract work requires a contract, after all, and no one gets paid until the work is done. A years-long relationship with a shampoo manufacturer is something I don’t expect the Hackaday reader will ever experience. Building an electronic gizmo in Shenzhen, perhaps. If you’re looking for a look at the manufacturing culture of China, Bunnie’s might be the best.

Roundup

What does The Hardware Hacker bring to the table? The first third of the book is an excellent introduction to building more than one thing. Design for manufacture, testing, cost of goods sold, and everything else you’re required to know before building selling the product you’re working on are covered well in this book. Of course, no book on the business of making things could ever be considered complete. The Hardware Hacker is, however, a great introduction.

hardware_hackerAnyone reading The Hardware Hacker is going to get a very good idea of how to make things. Whether that’s a completely Open Source laptop, dealing with fake SD cards, or managing a supply chain, The Hardware Hacker takes the reader from knowing nothing to at least knowing what they don’t know.

Limiting my assessment of this book does it a disservice – the real value here is Bunnie’s take on the culture of Chinese manufacturing. The shining light of this book is Bunnie’s take on how Open Source works in China, how it’s not really Open Source in capital letters, and how the words ‘sharing economy’ have vastly different meanings on either side of the Pacific.

Over the last decade, Bunnie has cemented his position as a bridge between worlds. On one hand, you have an MIT graduate, familiar with signing NDAs and rightfully frustrated by having to pick up a phone to get a price for a component. On the other hand, you have someone who has deftly maneuvered around Shenzhen, managed supply chains, and actually gets why Shenzhen is the manufacturing capital of the world. Bunnie is expert in bridging these two worlds, and for that knowledge alone The Hardware Hacker is worth the price of admission.

20 thoughts on “Books You Should Read: The Hardware Hacker

  1. I don’t think “gongkai” translates to open source unless you add the phase “closed loop open source”. Check out Bunnie’s blog or his book for clarification. Both are worth reading. It’s more of a system between resources that promotes limited free exchange of info if you include the organization sharing the information in the supply chain. I believe Bunnie was reverse engineering a WiFi chip to get around those restrictions. But gongkai is not a system that is normally open to the Hacker community.

    1. There are many sites and programs that will convert PDF to whatever format you want. All the big name readers should have PDF support/conversion built in or in the management software. Calibre is an open source program, never used it myself so I can’t comment on it.

    1. I’m sorry evad, I’m afraid I can’t do that.

      I will tell you 3 things:
      1. When in Hong Kong, try using Cantonese or English instead of mandarin when talking to the taxi-drivers, chances are they are just as useful. In Shenzen though, mandarin is a better bet.
      2. remember that fishing villages get a head start if they are adjacent to Hong Kong, previously one of the biggest producers of electronics in the world.
      3. If you didn’t get the reference at the top, you have to watch the movie.

  2. I think there is much to be discussed on the difference between the two books above. I was in China for 4 months and speak some Chinese. Even with that, the Chinese always treated me as an outsider. They knew exactly what things cost in the US and always started negotiations over that price–frequently 10 times the US price. I once had a lady pitch me a pair of linen pants for 65 US, and I bought the same pants down that same street for about 8 US and probably still over payed. You hear stories like this a lot, but you don’t get is a sense of how degrading the above feels. It’s exhausting and constant.

    I’m not sure what ethnicity Bunnie is; but if he speaks fluent Chinese and is Chinese, he will get treated very differently than a white foreigner who are seen as “prey” and cash cows.

    The comment about “there are shysters everywhere” is very dangerous here. In China being a shyster is a just a default part of the national culture.

    I know this seems “strong.” But there is a serious cultural difference here. A common phrase in China is “secrecy is worth a thousand tigers” which comes from a time when 1000 tigers was an impossible thing. So it means nothing is more valuable. This is very common mentality across all of china. Theft and crime is very low; but tricking and manipulating is very high was my experience. I bought 2 pieces of electronics in china; one which allowed my DS to run custom OS and bootloader, which worked great. And a “sony” mp3 player that died the second I put songs on it. As you can imagine, there are no returns in a Chinese market. Buyer beware. Seriously.

    If you are considering working a Chinese electronics market (there are more than just Shenzin, btw. I really like Xian’s), find a trusted Chinese local who other foreigners have had success with to be your proxy. They will be viewed by the market as an asset: you will most likely be viewed as a mark.

  3. Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang is one of the most EVIL people out there. He had a hand in the millions of now USELESS Chumby devices. Chumby is the definitive case for NOT trusting the “Cloud” as a service. Don’t buy his book.

    1. Soooo… not trusting the cloud as a service would justify the urge of not buying a book about hardware hacking? And being an engineer on a project makes you “one of the most EVIL people” “out there”? How old are you?

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