As with many things in life, motivation is everything. This also applies to the development of software, which is a field that has become immensely important over the past decades. Within a commercial context, the motivation to write software is primarily financial, in that a company’s products are developed by individuals who are being financially compensated for their time. This is often different with Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) projects, where the motivation to develop the software is in many cases derived more out of passion and sometimes a wildly successful hobby rather than any financial incentives.
Yet what if financial incentives are added by those who have a vested interest in seeing certain features added or changed in a FOSS project? While with a commercial project it’s clear (or should be) that the paying customers are the ones whose needs are to be met, with a volunteer-based FOSS project the addition of financial incentives make for a much more fuzzy system. This is where FOSS projects like the Zig programming language have put down their foot, calling FOSS bounties ‘damaging’.
System76, a computer manufacturer known for selling machines which run Linux, recently unveiled the complete sources for their forthcoming Launch mechanical keyboard. Made with familiar tools, mass produced, and backed by a stable company it looks like the Launch will be a compelling entrant into the world of mechanical keyboards.
Back in March of 2020 System76 published a blog post about a new project they were embarking on; a mechanical keyboard with an unusual layout. At the time there was scant information available besides a summer 2021 target and little was heard until last week when they opened up access to the Launch repository. Everything should be recognizable if you’ve ever looked at the sources for a customized mechanical keyboard before, which is what gets our attention. Electrical sources are authored with KiCad and should be easy to tweak or fabricate. And mechanical components are provided in STEP files with mechanical drawings, presumably because they intend to actually manufacture these.
Feature wise all the usual hallmarks of a well designed keyboard are here. The Launch uses hostswap sockets to make it easy to install the usual Cherry MX compatible switch options, and includes per-key RGB backlighting courtesy of SK6805 LEDs. The ATmega32U4 runs the popular and extremely capable QMK firmware instead of something bespoke, so it should be easy to customize to the user’s desire.
System76 touts an unusual key layout, but if you’ve seen a 75% keyboard before it shouldn’t be too threatening (though we do wonder about that shrunken right shift). The most unusual feature is that it features a USB hub capable of full speed 10 gigabit USB 3.1 Gen 2 on two USB-C and two USB-A ports. It’s worth checking out the schematic to appreciate how much more complicated the hub design is than the rest of the keyboard, which is practically vestigial in comparison.
The remaining unknown is how the Launch integrates with Pop!_OS, System76’s awkwardly named remix of Ubuntu. They promise deep, compelling integration and we’re excited to see how that manifests.
In the older days of open source software, major projects tended to have their Benevolent Dictators For Life who made all the final decisions, and some mature projects still operate that way. Guido van Rossum famously called his language “Python” because he liked the British comics of the same name. That’s the sort of thing that only a single developer can get away with.
However, in these modern times of GitHub, GitLab, and other collaboration platforms, community-driven decision making has become a more and more common phenomenon, shifting software development towards democracy. People begin to think of themselves as “Python programmers” or “GIMP users” and the name of the project fuses irrevocably with their identity.
What happens when software projects fork, develop apart, or otherwise change significantly? Obviously, to prevent confusion, they get a new name, and all of those “Perl Monks” need to become “Raku Monks”. Needless to say, what should be a trivial detail — what we’ve all decided to call this pile of ones and zeros or language constructs — can become a big deal. Don’t believe us? Here are the stories of renaming Python, Perl, and the GIMP.
Hernando Barragán is the grandfather of Arduino of whom you’ve never heard. And after years now of being basically silent on the issue of attribution, he’s decided to get some of his grudges off his chest and clear the air around Wiring and Arduino. It’s a long read, and at times a little bitter, but if you’ve been following the development of the Arduino vs Arduino debacle, it’s an important piece in the puzzle.
Wiring, in case you don’t know, is where digitalWrite() and company come from. Maybe even more importantly, Wiring basically incubated the idea of building a microcontroller-based hardware controller platform that was simple enough to program that it could be used by artists. Indeed, it was intended to be the physical counterpart to Processing, a visual programming language for art. We’ve always wondered about the relationship between Wiring and Arduino, and it’s good to hear the Wiring side of the story. (We actually interviewed Barragán earlier this year, and he asked that we hold off until he published his side of things on the web.)
The short version is that Arduino was basically a fork of the Wiring software, re-branded and running on a physical platform that borrowed a lot from the Wiring boards. Whether or not this is legal or even moral is not an issue — Wiring was developed fully open-source, both software and hardware, so it was Massimo Banzi’s to copy as much as anyone else’s. But given that Arduino started off as essentially a re-branded Wiring (with code ported to a trivially different microcontroller), you’d be forgiven for thinking that somewhat more acknowledgement than “derives from Wiring” was appropriate.
The story of Arduino, from Barragán’s perspective, is actually a classic tragedy: student comes up with a really big idea, and one of his professors takes credit for it and runs with it.