Creating the OsciPrime: Interview with Manuel Di Cerbo

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The OsciPrime has come a long way; from student project to commercial product, this open source hardware and software project is an excellent case study on just what it takes to turn a concept into a reality.

Manuel Di Cerbo

To learn more about this fascinating project, we decided to speak with Manuel Di Cerbo, one of the OsciPrime’s original creators, and now Managing Director of Nexus-Computing. Manuel’s insights on how to put a complex device like the OsciPrime into production while adhering to the principles of open source are a valuable asset to other groups looking to make a viable product out of open hardware.

Dedicated to Open Source

The Powerbase: Manuel, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Can you start by telling our readers a bit about yourself?

Manuel: First of all, thank you so much Tom, for this opportunity to talk about our project.

Since early on I always had some interest into computers and electronics. Soon after our first internet connection was set up at home, I started to learn “programming” Javascript and HTML together with my brother (and today’s partner in project) Andreas. Later on, during the studies of Electrical Engineering I started to program some small projects for myself in Java. Ever since I learned the basics, I always had a programming project going on in my free time. Especially the creative aspect of programming appeals to me.

The Powerbase: When did you get interested in free and open source software? Why do you think it’s important?

Manuel: I started to get in touch with Open Source Projects during my studies at the University of Applied Sciences. Also, I started to use Ubuntu as my main work environment which lead me to get to know many Open Source projects. Since then I have never looked back. At the end of the day, it just feels right to use Open Source and also to contribute to it.

We chose an Open Source License for the OsciPrime, since we believe for small projects like this, we benefit ourselves and others by doing so. Today, and even more in the future, Open Source projects provide additional value to a product for the end user. By being Open Source you are aggressively competitive, even more than in closed source competition. You are required to be constantly productive in order to maintain your user base. So the user not only has the added value by always having the latest and greatest product at hand compared to closed source, where other aspects of business are more important. Open Source projects also make the end user top priority, and a business building Open Source products will always have this aspect by nature.

The Powerbase: OsciPrime was started as a project for the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland in 2010. Did you think you would still be working on it 2 years later, much less putting hardware into production for it?

Manuel: No, we did not. We have always believed, that we have a cool project, but we did not have the resources to focus on our own product. During the first year after graduating we had many projects related to Android, but unrelated to the OsciPrime project. It was not until early March this year that we were even considering making a product out of our oscilloscope.

Then at the Embedded World Conference in Nürnberg we met many people from the industry. There we realized, that the Open Source nature of the project is unique in the market and that it will add value to the product. At that point we decided to start focusing on the project more and to make an attempt to build a business around it.

We hope that one day we can focus exclusively on making the OsciPrime better. We have tons of ideas and already a lot of feedback that will make the product really cool in the future.

The Powerbase: What part does Nexus-Computing play with the OsciPrime project?

Manuel: We founded Nexus-Computing during our studies to be able to offer IT services commercially. Among that Software Engineering and Linux System support. After finishing our studies we decided to start exclusively offering Android Engineering services (from Software Eng., up to consulting and OS integration). We have been self-sustained so far and are really thankful for that. We would not trade jobs with anyone at the moment :)

Software Development

The Powerbase: The first version of the OsciPrime software was ported over from the original Beagleboard project. What kind of challenges and limitations did you have when going from the Beagleboard to generic Android devices?

Manuel: On the Beagleboard we created more or less a “desktop” application from a user perspective. The scope was operated by mouse and keyboard. So one of the things that need to be considered when going from embedded to mobile, is screen size and user input. Also at that point we used our own port of libusb (which required root). Although it was possible to use it on an Android tablet, root was still required. At some point Google created a USB Host API which we used for further revisions of the software.

Then there is always the performance consideration. Luckily, our first tablet (Acer A500) was even faster than the Beagleboard.

The Powerbase: Were you surprised at how popular the original version of OsciPrime became? The Google Play Store shows it to have been downloaded over 10,000 times.

Manuel: We were indeed surprised of how many people downloaded the OsciPrime. That surprise went hand in hand with a good amount of uncertainty though. Since the initial version was more a proof of concept than anything else, we were afraid to earn bad reviews. Also, the project was designed to run with our USB scope and not for audio, yet most of the people were using it exclusively for audio.

OsciPrime Android Application

The Powerbase: Last year you decided to revisit the software and completely revamp the application, leaving the original OsciPrime as a free “legacy” download. Why come out with a completely new application instead of just updating the original version?

Manuel: There are two reasons for this.

1. We wanted to make the version paid. A paid product will always earn better public feedback/ratings, because people think before spending their bucks. And I am happy to see that people are purchasing a copy on the Market, although they could just go and download the binary as well as the source code from our website for free. I believe that people are willing to support Open Source projects this way because they like what they see and because they want to see more of it (updates).

2. We knew that the initial version of the scope was running quite well on dated devices. And although we made sure the new version runs on 2.3.4, we designed it for Android 3.2+. By not updating the legacy version we saved our user base from a bad surprise. And also, if someone liked the older version better, they could just go ahead and download it again. This also enabled us to split the feedback more easily.

Hardware Development

The Powerbase: Going from a software project to commercial hardware is a big jump, what made you decide to put the OsciPrime hardware into production?

Manuel: After visiting the Embedded World Conference in March, we knew that we have to invest time to make our product available. We were in the unique position of having a hardware that runs out of the box with Android. And all of it is Open Source.

OsciPrime Hardware

The Powerbase: What has the process been like to get the hardware through the design and prototype phases? What has been the hardest part of going from concept to physical product?

Manuel: We were lucky enough that our very first hardware prototype in 2010 was running properly. It had a few quirks, but it ran pretty stable. However, the hardware was bulky at that point. And also it was only a dual layer layout, with components mounted on both sides. For industrial manufacturing that is not optimal. Thus, it was necessary to redo the layout.

By purchasing a reflow kit, which is used to solder the SMD components onto the boards, we were able to start in-house prototyping; and thus, reduce the costs of the prototyping phase by a big deal.

Since then, we had several revisions of the board and the prototyping cycles looked like this:

  1. Layouting the boards.
  2. Ordering the printed circuit boards
  3. Ordering components.
  4. Soldering prototypes by hand.

These cycles are relatively expensive especially since we were always ordering in small numbers. Also, since assembly is done by hand, we usually have some boards that don’t work properly, and of course, one can not sell prototypes.

The hardest part is to decide at the end of a cycle, if the prototype is good enough, or another revision is needed, which will add time and cost.

The Powerbase: We usually see this type of product being put into production for the iPhone/iPad, such as the products from Oscium. What made you target only Android devices for your product? Are there any plans to later expand to iOS devices?

Manuel: We are very enthusiastic about Android and not so much about Apple products. Programming on a Mac is for somebody else, not for us. However, if a developer wants to build an application for iOS based on our hardware, go for it! :)

We enjoy working with Android so much, that we are going to stick with it in the near future. Maybe there will be a libusb based project for the desktop as well.

Supporting the OsciPrime

The Powerbase: Now that the preorders have started, how close are you currently to releasing the OsciPrime hardware? Is there any timeline on when shipments can begin?

Manuel: We want to ship the first batch in the beginning November and preorders started on 28 Aug. We are very eager to make that deadline.

The Powerbase: Is purchasing the OsciPrime application for Android the only way to support the project? Are their any plans to start a fundraising campaign to help put the first units into production?

Manuel: At the moment, it is the only way. We funded the prototype phase with our company and were supported by our family to start production. If there was an option to do a Kickstarter project from within Switzerland, we would have done so. But those platforms here are not comparable to the real Kickstarter.

Parting Advice

The Powerbase: Do you have advice for other groups who might be looking to turn their Open Source hardware into a commercial product? Anything to avoid?

Manuel: It is crucial to think about possible risks by going Open Source. Namely if you produce hardware and want to be profitable with it, there is always the risk of someone stealing your product. Therefore, it is important to know, how you still can be competitive if something like that happens. You need to make sure you offer something more than just hardware. You need to add quality, great support and public relations into the mix and tie everything together with a strong branding. This way your user will be thinking twice before buying the cheap copy or the strong original.

However, you should not be afraid to go Open Source. It takes a lot of guts to publish everything you have to everyone for free, but I believe if you do it right, it will benefit you eventually if not instantaneously. The hard and software business models are changing and so are the users, and all points towards an Open Source blessed future.

Thanks to Manuel Di Cerbo for taking the time to talk with us about the OsciPrime, and to the entire team at Nexus-Computing for making it a reality. You can get on the (limited) preorder now by going to the OsciPrime site.


Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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