[Freedombox-discuss] Android stick-PCs as a potential Commotion/FreedomBox/OpenWRT platform?

chris hall bitmonki at gmail.com
Fri Apr 26 10:30:28 UTC 2013

Paul Gardner-Stephen <paul at servalproject.org> writes:

> (snip!)
> The newer generations of the Android stick-PCs have dual-core 1.5GHz ARM processors, 1GB of RAM and 16GB of
> flash, dual-antenna 802.11n Wi-Fi (although the firmware is not ideal, more on that later), USB host port,
> microSD slot, and HDMI out, all in a tiny thing about 80mm x 35mm x 15mm depending on the particular variant
> you get.  You get all that for under US$50, e.g., from geekbuying.com.

I just ordered an MK808B, for reasons very similar to what you have

I am developing an Erlang variant of FreedomBox, and was doing a fairly
exhaustive survey of the more recent 'system on a board' offerings in
order to find an initial system for a baseline and development.

I'm really intrigued by Olinuxino (operating temperatures 0-70C!) and
Beaglebone Black (both are Free/open hardware), but the former is a
little expensive, while the latter isn't likely to be shipping in
quantity anytime soon - the shortest leadtime I saw on the larger
suppliers was 7 weeks, the rest were at 17 weeks and up.

Plus, neither one has a case, etc., and are really more targeted at the
Maker community.

>From a FreedomBox perspective, in addition to their computational
benefits, these ostensible TV/movie player doodads provide:

* perfect cover for activists ("oh that, I just watch movies on it"),

* significant interest in 'ordinary folks' ("you mean I can watch Netflix
  in HD on it, too? I'll take 3!")

> These typically come with a root-enabled ROM, and are very easy to flash with a complete new operating
> system.

The one I ordered has Android Jellybean (I think 4.1.1, but we'll see).

Further, I discovered a couple of interesting apps on the
Google Market today: 

* "Lil' Debi: Debian installer" from the Guardian Project. Installs
  Debian into a chroot, also intended to work with other Guardian
  project apps like their Tor proxy and secure chat.

* "Debian Kit" Installs Debian as 'co-equal' with
  Android, will start servers, etc., intended for people who just want
  Debian on their phone or tablet. (Sweet!)
  http://sven-ola.dyndns.org/repo/debian-kit-en.html (appears to be part
  of the German FreiFunk (Free Radio?) project)

Both require root.

Does anyone have any thoughts they'd care to share re: Debian in a
chroot under the Android kernel vs. side-by-side/as part of Android

I've never really played with chroot, but I understand apps launched from
it can't (for the most part) 'see' the non-chroot part of the
filesystem, but what about apps launched outside the chroot -- surely
they can 'see' into it?

Debian-on-Android appeals to me for several reasons, not least of which is that to
the uninitiated onlooker, its an Android device, but really its a
Debian-capable device, although Debian is a relatively 'silent
partner'.  Plus, the Guardian Project and Open Whisper Systems (
http://www.whispersystems.org/ ) are certainly playing in the same
ballpark as FreedomBox, IMO, so why not explore possible links/synergies
that this environment might provide?

Best (and worst?) of both worlds?

I'd be very interested in anyone's thoughts as to the usefulness of this
for either community.  Personally, I intend to to explore this further,
but I do wonder about the security implications.

> (snip!)
> 1. The Wi-Fi antenna are little patch antenna, which probably don't have that great performance.  They could
> be replaced fairly easily though, I suspect.  On the up-side, they do have two antenna for doing clever
> 802.11n things.
> 2. The Wi-Fi firmware that comes with the ROMs I have found don't include simultaneous AP and ad-hoc
> capability, at least as far as I can tell.  This would need investigation.  They apparently use a Broadcom
> 8330 based Wi-Fi chipset in at least some variants, which leads to my next point.
> 3. The Wi-Fi chipset and design quality varies between suppliers of these, as it appears that they are all
> using a reference design of the RK3066 chipset, to which they add Wi-Fi.  Some use realtek or mediatek
> chipsets instead of broadcom.  Some implementations are better than others, e.g., some sub-optimal
> implementations seem to have a common ground-plane between the Wi-Fi and USB, which reduces the sensitivity
> of the Wi-Fi receiver. All this is both a negative and positive. On the negative side, some variants might
> be complete duds for our desired use-cases.  On the positive side, it might be possible to encourage one of
> these manufacturers to make one with, for example, an Atheros Wi-Fi chipset that is well supported by Linux,
> OpenWRT and Debian.  Related, I have yet to survey the complete OS image to see if there are any other
> closed binary blobs hiding around the place.
> 4. There is no on-board ethernet port on the cheaper models.  This could be solved with a USB ethernet
> adapter, or again, encouraging one of the manufacturers to make a variant that is better optimised for our
> communities needs.

The above is *exactly* why I continue to be so interested in
Olinuxino/Beaglebone Black: since they are Free hardware (schematics,
Eagle files, etc. freely available), no problemo, one can just modify a
few to one's requirements.  Once one is happy, one can send out the
updated files and have a few dozen/hundred/thousand
made. Easy-peasey. ;)

It would seem that the hardware outlook has suddenly gotten a *lot* more
interesting: by all appearances Beaglebone Black is a response to
Raspberry Pi that significantly raises the hardware capability bar while
also significantly lowering the price (for projects such as ours,
anyway).  I'm watching to see how Olinuxino (and others) react to this

> If anyone in the community is interested in working on porting OpenWRT and/or enabling simultaneous
> AP+ad-hoc Wi-Fi on these, we can probably arrange to provide a couple of MK808Bs to facilitate this.

I'd be very tempted re: AP+ad hoc, but the last time I worked that close
to the metal was in the early IBM PC days, and it wasn't
radio-related. :P

> Paul.
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 --Chris H

All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small.
- Lao Tzu

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