Did Ronja Fail?

October 27th, 2009 by Ralf Schlatterbeck

Ronja, the optical data link device, is often cited as a failed open source hardware project — the last one mentioning it I just read is Lawrence Kincheloe’s excellent essay Musings Upon the Nature of Open Source Hardware as a Business at the end of his project visit summary at Factor e Farm.
Roja did fail (in the sense that it isn’t very widespread today not in the sense of being a cool open source project). One of the research studies I know of is the presentation “Ronja — Darknet of Lights” by Johan Söderberg at the 4th Oekonux conference for which Audio is available. The study is very interesting although I don’t agree with the conclusions. So why did Ronja “fail”?
Ronja’s main application was cheap internet access. At the time of its design in 2001 wireless LAN (Wifi) wasn’t yet available cheaply. And in the Czech Republic DSL wasn’t available at the time.
Now consider the technical characteristics of Ronja:

  • Up to 10MBit/s
  • Up to 1.4 km range
  • Light: Doesn’t work in fog, or other bad weather (snow)
  • Light: Hard to get the beam to the destination (direction)
  • Light: Interference with daylight
  • For full-duplex communication we need two (receiver + transmitter) devices
  • sold for around 700$ at the time (the LED alone cost 120$ you get these for .75$ now)
  • needed “a hell of a lot of time to build one” according to Söderberg

And compare these with WLAN:

  • Up to 54MBit/s
  • With good antennas several km range (I’ve built a link with 5.5km)
  • Antennas are cheap and can even be built at home, e.g., a Cantenna — you can build a cantenna in an evening
  • Works in fog and bad weather
  • we need only one antenna at sender and one at receiver
  • WLAN is very cheap nowadays, it became available (with new frequencies) in 2005 in cz.

So I think that Ronja “failed” because it was replaced by something better and cheaper that was readily available. It isn’t an example of a failed open source business model for hardware and shouldn’t be used as an example. This doesn’t mean that we already know how a business model for open source hardware should look like, though.
The idea behind Ronja — according to the Wikipedia article on Ronja “User Controlled Technology” is (mostly) achieved with WLAN technology today: We can use cheap devices and modify them (using open source firmware and homegrown antennas) to suit our needs. And there are large wireless communities now like Funkfeuer in Vienna who do their own Internet communication.

5 Responses to “Did Ronja Fail?”

  1. marcin Says:

    On Funkfeuer, what is the extent of the network? How many different towers does it have for broadcasting signal, and at what range? Is it a closed network linked to itself of also to the outside world? And, what are the limits of such a network for truly free communications? Are there any regulatory restrictions that get in the way?

  2. Lawrence Kincheloe Says:

    Its difficult to determine “failure” with an open source project, because their goals don’t often fit into the traditional model of success based on profit. Ronja has been a huge success at designing a complete package open source product that can be built from the ground up by a competent builder. Furthermore, they developed a model of funding that has let them maintain their community of users and to make improvements on their products.

    However I would argue that the point I was trying to make was not related to failure or success, but to the problems that come up when trying to adhere to an open source business model. Ronja ran the gauntlet, from commercial entities not contributing back sufficiently to the community, to funding from advertisements and donations being insufficient to support development.

    Over all though, I liked the contrast being about technology as opposed to other factors.

  3. Ralf Schlatterbeck Says:

    On the extent of the network, see the map map.funkfeuer.at/wien/, there are no towers. People use masts on their house or other existing structures. Range is up to several km line of sight, this is a mesh network, so each node is a router. The network has an uplink to the internet. The network is closed in the sense that you have to be member of funkfeuer and get your own (public!) IP address from funkfeuer to participate, participation is free. Limit: Maybe the mesh network will outgrow the routing tables at some point (currently the mesh routing protocol keeps all nodes in its table). But new proposals for mesh routing protocols are being discussed. Regulatory restrictions: You may send with 100mW (= 20 dBm) on 2.4GHz, more (200mW – 500mW) on 5GHz afaik.

  4. Ralf Schlatterbeck Says:

    I really didn’t want to oppose your analysis — writing something about Ronja was on my todo list since i had listened to the oekonux presentation. I fully agree to your analysis that open sourcing hardware will not guarantee economic rewards. But it sounded a little too pessimistic to me, so I wanted to point out that for Ronja there are several other factors which have influenced the economic outcome.

    A good example of a successful project is makerbot.com with the open source cupcake design on thingiverse as far as I know they were sold out at least once. The vienna metalab has two for example (bought from makerbot industries).

  5. Smári McCarthy Says:

    FabFi is an interesting project w.r.t. this. http://fabfi.fablab.af – Ronja is pretty cool, but it’s easily displaced by WiFi, partly because of the node cost in Ronja, which is relatively high compared to FabFi for example.