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.
The 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.
In 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.
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.
Earlier this year, we took a look at another book on Chinese manufacturing culture, Poorly Made In China, and 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.
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.
Anyone 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.