Local innovator develops DIY open source smartphone

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo
Johannesburg, 26 May 2023
Cape Town-based innovator Evan Robinson.
Cape Town-based innovator Evan Robinson.

Cape Town-based innovator Evan Robinson claims he has developed the world’s first open source, do-it-yourself (DIY) smartphone that anyone can build from off-the-shelf components.

Robinson says he came up with the idea after getting frustrated by the limitations and lack of privacy provided by consumer smartphones.

“I wanted people to have more control and optionality over their most personal smart devices, so I built an Open source, Upgradeable, Repairable Smartphone that is completely big tech free. It’s not theirs – it’s OURS,” he says.

Robinson calls his innovation OURphone and complete plans to build the device are available online free of charge under an open source GPL-3.0 licence.

“This means anybody can copy the design, modify it and contribute to its evolution,” he says.

“The invention was released under an open source GPL-3.0 licence because my intention is for other people to improve on the design without any limitations or financial restraints. I derive no income from the project,” he tells ITWeb via e-mail.

Describing the limitations of mainstream smartphones, he says: “They are not typically easy to repair, easy to upgrade, or modular (can swap one type of camera for another, for example). They are made to last for a period, then be replaced entirely, creating a cycle of consumption and excess waste.

“Also, every action that you perform on the phone is recorded and made available to multiple third-parties, mostly without the user’s knowledge and full consent. If you want privacy, there are very few options available from traditional smartphones.”

He says the specifications for version one of the device are modest, but Robinson hopes others will pick up his design and take it forward.

The device has been widely covered online in titles such as Hackaday, Hackster and Tom’s Hardware, as well as Spanish, Italian, German and Chinese media, he notes.

“I started developing it in August 2022 as a part-time project. I finished it in May and wrote up the plans on GitHub and Instructables. I have had many compliments, messages of support, design suggestions and ideas, and contact requests.”

He points out the open source community has shown the most interest in the device, and believes “tech-savvy people understand the merits of the project more than average phone users, because they are more aware of how data can be collected using technology”.

The parts required to build the smartphone cost approximately R3 600, he says. Features include a colour touch-screen running a Linux operating system with 1GB RAM and 1.2GHz central processing unit (CPU), providing voice calls, SMS, 4G LTE internet, WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth and a 5MP camera.

Apps like WhatsApp, YouTube and Facebook run via the built-in internet browser. “The device is also ‘convergent’ – you can plug in a full-size monitor, keyboard and mouse for a desktop PC experience.

“The hardest part of the build was making it small. The components are relatively modular and easy to connect, but are not designed for fitting into tight spaces, like parts designed specifically for mass market smartphones,” says Robinson.

Asked what he would most like to improve about the design, he says: “Make it faster, and less like a brick.

“I would like to collaborate with other enthusiasts around the world to make this device a valid competitor against mass market consumer phones. This will require making the CPU faster, the UI [user interface] easier to navigate, the device thinner and battery life longer. I accept that it will never be mass produced, nor as popular as the major brands, but I believe some within the maker community will enjoy owning it and using it.”

Robinson is a tech entrepreneur and inventor known for his tax chatbot TaxTim.

“TaxTim is a digital tax assistant that asks you simple questions about your income and expenses, then completes and submits your tax return to SARS [South African Revenue Service] in an instant.”

Launched in 2011 with seed funding from Google, he says TaxTim now assists 40% of SA’s tax base, and partners with brands like Momentum, Sanlam Reality, Old Mutual, FNB eBucks, Standard Bank and uCount.