I generally don’t cover topics such as videogames or videogame consoles, but this really struck me and I think I ought to take a hour or so to write about it. And besides, running my own website, I can talk about anything I want 😀
A small team of University students has recently launched an Indiegogo campaign for Project Novatio, which they describe (in rather poor English) thusly
Novatio is the world’s first modular gaming console based on the Linux operating system called NovOS.The main feature of this console is the possibility to play all PC and Android Games!
This is the first sentence that appear on their Indiegogo page, and even that contains a blatant error. And I’m not talking about the lack of a space between the period and The, but about Linux not being an operating system. Linux is a kernel, the lowest level of software that interfaces with physical hardware in order to make a computer functional, but requires additional software to make a complete operating system. When a layperson says she “installed Linux”, she really means that she’s installed a Linux distribution, that is, an operating system comprising the Linux kernel and other software, generally released under an open source license.
But that’s not even the biggest gripe I have about this project. The team has made grandiose claims about their product, making it sound too good to be true. And sure enough, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. We’ll briefly go through each of them in the following paragraphs, but we’ll also highlight some critical flaws with how the campaign as a whole is being conducted.
Crowdfunding in a nutshell
If you’re not familiar with how crowfunding works, the gist of it is that if you have an idea you want to bring to life, you can go to a crowdfunding website such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo and present complete strangers with a pitch describing why they should want to fund its development. If a person likes your project, they can pledge the amount of money they want towards its development. This method of raising funds has proven very popular in the latest years, with some technology startups owing their very existence to the fact that they ran a successful crowdfunding campaign.
What’s the difference between crowdfunding and angel investors, you may ask? Well, for starters, even though crowdfunding supporters will tell you that you’re “investing in a company, not preordering a product”, a very great deal of crowdfunding projects will offer the product itself as a reward for those users that pledge a specified amount. Secondly, most (if not all) such platforms will explicitly forbid offering shares, equity or other forms of monetary gain. This is the case for the best-known crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, as well as Indiegogo, the platform Novatio is using.
So it’s totally not preordering a product, but neither a form of investment, which presumes the investor(s) will benefit monetarily from supporting a certain project.
So, what exactly do they aim to do?
According to the Novatio team, they aim to produce a modular games console which will never age because the customer will be able to upgrade its components when they get too slow to keep up with hardware requirements of games. You know, like a computer. And yet, they strongly deny that theirs is a computer, reiterating over and over and over again that it’s really a console. I don’t know, I’ve been told that if something swims like a fish, breathes like a fish and tastes like a fish, it’s more than likely a fish.
And there’s also a precedent for what Novatio is trying to accomplish (although, again, they deny it has anything to do with it): Steam machines. They were ideated by Valve as small(ish) gaming computers that would sit under a big-screen TV and bring PC gaming to the living room.
It didn’t work. Actually, it failed spectacularly, because Valve completely missed the point. People who want to play videogames on a TV just get a console and be done with it. After they buy it, they plug it in, pop a disc inside the tray and off they go. It’s as straightforward as it gets and they don’t have to deal with all the hiccups associated with gaming on a PC: there’s no manual assembling required, no operating system installation, no driver-hunting on the Internet. A Steam machine was still a PC running a customized operating system (named SteamOS) based on Debian (notice some similarities here?), was a lot more expensive than a console, and filled a niche market that really wasn’t there, because people who want a small-sized gaming PC more than likely already had one and/or knew how to build it themselves. Or they could just buy a Steam Link (another gadget by Valve) for 60 € and stream videogames from their regular gaming PC. Guess what most people did?
Moreover, consoles are sold at a net loss: manufacturers will recoup those losses by charging publishers with (high) fees to have their games featured on their consoles. The only somewhat recent console not to be sold at a loss was the Wii. What this means is that Novatio will have to make a profit off of their expensive console (we’re talking about 600 € for the base model and 800 for the Pro model).
Windows compatibility through hardware
One of their most dubious (and contradictory) claims is that their console will be able to run Windows executables thanks to a specifically-designed FPGA. This is an acronym which stands for Field-Programmable Gate Array, a particular type of chip that can be reprogrammed by a customer after it’s being manufactured. They’re commonly used as prototyping tools when designing new integrated circuits. They, however, claim that they’re able to program one to run Windows executables without the need for a Windows license or an emulator like Wine. I’m no expert in electronics, but my understanding is that that’s not what FPGAs do.
But even if we want to give them the benefit of the doubt and they somehow manage to do the miracle, I don’t think Microsoft will be very happy with that. Imagine if Valve said “hey, our Steam machines are going to be able to run Windows software natively!”. Microsoft would more than likely sue them and win. If it would be such an enormous disaster for a huge company like Valve, imagine a team of 4 university students. They’ll be ruined for life. That’s why I said they should be glad if they fail in the title.
What do they have to show for it?
To put it bluntly, they have nothing. Their Indiegogo page shows a video which is clearly a 3D rendering (and a rather nice one, I’ll give them that) and a few screenshots taken from that very video. The case they show is nice, but that’s because they’ve partnered with Hydra, an Italian manufacturer of cases, which will allow customers to purchase them separately.
I take issues with how they depict graphics cards will fit in the case, however. The animation (about 0:15 in the video) shows that the graphics card can be inserted from the top of the case, but apparently there wouldn’t be enough room to push it in the PCIe slot, which means that they’ll either have to make a case with enough room to do so, or that one side of the case will have to be removed completely to install a graphics card.
The choice of Indiegogo
Over the years, Indiegogo has garnered somewhat of a shady reputation among users for hosting quite a few project that made unrealistic claims or were downright scammy, especially with electronics projects (although it also hosted a number of free energy scams. Yeah…). It tried to improve things by partnering with electronics behemoth Arrow Electronics, offering to help project members with prototyping and manufacturing their PCBs.
Kickstarter has generally a higher bar for electronics projects, requiring at least a working prototype (which Novatio doesn’t). Of course, this hasn’t stopped some scams to appear on that website, like the Skarp razor or the Scribble pen, but these were removed rather quickly, and since Kickstarter doesn’t charge until the end of the funding period, no one had to shell out a penny.
So, it becomes clear why Novatio chose to use Indiegogo: they don’t have a working prototype and, as such, cannot have their project featured on that website. Novatio did claim on their Facebook page that they have a prototype in the works and that they would show it in action in the following weeks, but this begs the question “why not waiting for the prototype to be ready and launch their campaign on the more popular Kickstarter, if they only needed a few more weeks to have something to show for it?” A compelling question indeed.
They also claimed that their product will use a custom chip designed to run Windows software without the need for a translation layer (like WINE) or a virtualized instance of Windows. If that’s the case, why didn’t they take advantage of the Arrow Electronics partnership to get help with prototyping?
The funding goal
Their Indiegogo page claims that they need 75,000 € to start working on their project, which is a ridiculously low amount of money for a new console. What’s even more odd is their choice of flexible funding, which allows them to keep all proceedings from the campaign even in case they don’t reach their funding goal. They defended this choice by saying that “if we don’t reach the goal, it will be easy to refund people”, which is really a non-answer. Firstly, Indiegogo allows to run a campaign without flexible funding; secondly, they could only refund people who actually get in touch with them and give them their bank account number; third, Indiegogo still keeps its 5% share, regardless of what they decide to do with the money they intend to give back to backers.
Another thing that struck me is their reward tiers. All of them are available in limited number, meaning that if every possible backer claims a reward, those who will come late to the party will have to donate money without receiving anything in exchange. Not even a subscription to their newsletter! I took the freedom to do the math and see how much they could raise if they somehow managed to have every backer pledge a reward.
So either they’re thinking that some people will give them almost 50,000 € without getting anything in return, or they didn’t do the math. Either way, I don’t think these kids are going to pass Introduction to Mathematical Analysis, which is a notoriously difficult exam in Italian universities. So much so that some students go on Erasmus just to pass this exam in a foreign school where it’s easier.
This project smells fishy to me. The claims are way too grandiose and there are enough red flags to make everyone wary. However, if you’re not in Italy, chances are you’re not going to hear about this crowdfunding because they haven’t been featured in any English-language website (except this one, and only because I’m Italian).
Are they trying to scam people? Honestly, I don’t think they are; I just think they’re very naive and really want to do something nice, but they just made a lot of poor decisions that doomed the entire project. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but as it is, I don’t see this ever achieving any type of success.