Tearing Down the Boss Phone

Poke around enough on AliExpress, Alibaba, and especially Taobao—the Chinese facing site that’s increasingly being used by Westerners to find hard to source parts—and you’ll come across some interesting things. The Long-CZ J8 is one of those, it’s 2.67 inch long and weighs just 0.63 ounces, and it’s built in the form factor of a Bluetooth headset.

A couple of months ago Cory Doctorow highlighted this tiny phone, he’d picked up on it because of the marketing. The lozenge-shaped phone was being explicitly marketed that it could “beat the boss”. The boss in question here being the B.O.S.S chair—a scanning technology that has been widely deployed across prisons in the U.K. in an attempt to put a halt to smuggling of mobile phones to inmates.

The Long-CZ J8 is just 2.67 inch (6.8cm) long.

I wasn’t particularly interested in whether it could make it through a body scanner, or the built-in voice changer which was another clue as to the target market for the phone. However just the size of the thing was intriguing enough that I thought I’d pick one up and take a look inside. So I ordered one from Amazon.

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Reverse-Engineering a Superior Chinese Product

It makes an Arduino look like a 555.  A 364 Mhz, 32 bit processor. 8 MB RAM. GSM. Bluetooth. LCD controller. PWM. USB and dozens more. Smaller than a Zippo and thinner than corrugated cardboard. And here is the kicker: $3. So why isn’t everyone using it? They can’t.

Adoption would mandate tier after tier of hacks just to figure out what exact hardware is there. Try to buy one and find that suppliers close their doors to foreigners. Try to use one, and only hints of incomplete documentation will be found. Is the problem patents? No, not really.

[Bunnie] has dubbed the phenomenon “Gongkai”, a type of institutionalized, collaborative, infringementesque knowledge-exchange that occupies an IP equivalent of bartering. Not quite open source, not quite proprietary. Legally, this sharing is only grey-market on paper, but widespread and quasi-accepted in practice – even among the rights holders. [Bunnie] figures it is just the way business is done in the East and it is a way that is encouraging innovation by knocking down barriers to entry. Chinese startups can churn out gimmicky trash almost on whim, using hardware most of us could only dream about for a serious project.

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