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Free as in cheap gadgets: the ESP8266

Project: esp-open-rtos (among other things, but this is the related FOSS project I'm involved with)

Who wants a programmable WiFi device for less than $3? The ESP8266 microcontroller has been hugely popular since it first appeared in 2014. Like many hardware devices, the ESP8266 incorporates a bunch of Free Software. But proprietary hardware and Free Software haven't traditionally been great friends...

A black box at first, the ESP8266 has evolved to be unusually open for a very cheap embedded device. This process has been helped along by massive engagement from hobbyist and maker communities. It's also leveraged existing Free Software tools like the GNU C compiler. There are now multiple open source frameworks for programming the ESP8266, including a port of the Arduino IDE. There is a small but active reverse engineering community, which I'm part of, looking into ESP8266 internals. There are also projects like esp-open-rtos aiming to strip back layers of proprietary code to produce a more programmer friendly development environment.

The ESP8266 exemplifies a trend towards cheap ubiquitous hardware, a building block for the much-hyped "Internet of Things". It's also a product of the hugely competitive world of low end Chinese manufacturing - related to the "gongkai" notion of information sharing. By looking at ESP8266 we can find clues about how low end connected hardware is likely to evolve, and what that means for people who care about software freedom and hardware openness.

Coming away from this talk you'll hopefully have gained some inspiration for projects you might build with an ESP8266, and knowledge of the open source based frameworks you could use. You'll also have insight into the fascinating world of low end Chinese hardware manufacturing, and how the future of cheap hardware might look from a Free Software perspective.

Angus Gratton

Angus is an embedded developer with experience developing both software and hardware, usually for resource-constrained systems. He once reimplemented the control system of a particle accelerator. Recently he spends time with Freetronics developing and producing Open Source Hardware for everyone.


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