“Has the computer become a black box, even to experienced electrical engineers? Will we be forever reliant upon large, opaque organizations to build them for us? Absolutely not, we say. And to prove our point, we built our very own laptop, from the circuit boards on up.”
With this statement the creators of Novena have summed up the philosophy behind their unusual project – an open code and open hardware computer. Their objective is to guarantee that the user has total control of its security.
This concept, which is a computer primarily aimed at experts, engineers, and hackers, but also available for any user who wants to take their privacy into their own hands, is available thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign in which the initial target of $250,000 was surprassed.
“We wanted to be able to inspect and understand as much of the system and its components as we could, so if we came across bugs or other anomalous behavior, we could rely on our wits to figure it out, rather than on the profit-motivated (and often empty) promises of a vendor‘s sales team. As a result, we decided to produce a laptop that was as free as possible of closed-source embedded firmware”, stated those behind the initiative.
For this reason they chose Debian, a division of Linux, as the operating system and went for a type of hardware that was open to being configured freely. This allows the user to download the layouts, documents, and to know in detail how to build or modify the system.
The idea is that this community of users can improve the code and each one of the terminal’s components on their own, or even change them for others according to their needs. They can also add them without any problem, which is different to what happens with normal laptop computers, which “are impossible to hack because there is no physical space to place other things”.
“Want to add a pulse oximeter to Novena so you can measure the level of oxygen in the blood running through the capillaries of your finger? Or maybe a barometer so you can monitor your airliner’s cabin pressure? With just a few screws you can mount your customization inside Novena’s laptop case”, claim its creators.
Due to this versatility, the computer is pretty different to what we are used to seeing on the market. First of all, it looks different, being quite big and slightly awkward, looking more like a laptop you’d see from the early 2000s. Secondly, it doesn’t perform quite as well as products that run with Windows or Mac OS X, despite being more expensive.
“Admittedly, we did not delude ourselves that we could build a laptop that would be faster, smaller, or cheaper than those of Apple, Dell, or HP,” says Huang. “However, we did set out to build a machine powerful and convenient enough to use every day.”
This is more than enough for the hundreds of people who are more concerned with their security and privacy, as they have already placed their bets on this innovative product as evidenced in the success of the crowdfunding project. Considering the world we live in, following the Edward Snowden’s revelations on cyberespionage, an initiative like this is always welcomed.
“Such transparency is unprecedented,” claim the guys behind Novena. “We hope it will encourage other engineers to follow in our footsteps and help users reclaim their technological independence.”