Friday, July 15, 2011

Who is Secret Labs, and why the Netduino project makes me nervous

I'm a big fan of the Arduino project. It is a micro-controller board that makes hardware programming fun. It is supported on all platforms, Windows, Mac and Linux, and works equally well on all of them. Arduino has fired off creativity in micro-controller hacking, and one product that caught my attention was the Netduino project. The board looks like the Arduino, but it uses the .NET framework by Microsoft.

A lot of what I found about Netduino was suspicious, so I thought I'd share this in the hope that someone could clarify the situation.

For an electronic project, Netduino is too good to be true.
  1. The Netduino contact page is very sparse: it contains a physical address (Secret Labs LLC, 315 Bleecker St #308, New York, NY 10014), an email address (webmaster@netduino.com), and a link to the online forums. The Secret Labs LLC website contains exactly this information. Almost nothing is known about them.
  2. The only name associated with Secret Labs is a person called Chris Walker. He is the only moderator of the Netduino forums. This is strange: I would expect Secret Labs to have a lot more than one technical contributor and a lot more people involved.
  3. I couldn't tell any source of funding. Is Secret Labs making money from the Netduino product? Hardware margins are probably too small for this to work. How does Chris Walker pay his rent? Do they have Venture Capital funding? I wasn't aware of open source hardware being a VC magnet.
  4. They have designed and developed the entire product, and it is available for purchase at major electronics stores like Sparkfun. The design is polished and crisp, too crisp for a version 1 product by an unknown company.
  5. The Netduino plus contains an ethernet port, for which they have 5C:86:4A MAC address prefix. Applying for MAC addresses takes some effort, so it is impressive that Secret Labs LLC has done so much groundwork.
  6. All their source code is available from files hosted at netduino.com. There is no public source code repository: no tracking of who made changes, and when. They claim to be an open source project, but if I want to submit improvements, there is no email address or contact in the source code. All source code is copyright Secret Labs LLC. A real hacker would love to get improvements from the community. The source code is not professional: comments are missing, and stale code is commented out when it didn't work. From the look and feel of the source code, I would guess a very small team, and a very hurried release. It was most probably developed in September 2010, which is very close to the release of the .NET Micro framework. 
  7. From a cursory look through Google Maps, 315 Bleecker St. looks like a residential address.  What's worse, the Better Business Bureau lists 318 Bleecker St #308 as a Payment Processing Service called SimplePayClix, with the listing opened in March 18, 2010.
  8. The domain netduino.com was first created on 16 January, 2009, while Netcraft first saw it in March 2009. This is very surprising. The netduino.com domain was registered before the Secret Labs LLC was created. Microsoft announced that they would open source the .NET Micro Framework on 16 November, 2009. Did Secret Labs LLC work on a product even before they knew that the framework was going to be open sourced, or were they working on a different design that wasn't released? The owner on secretlabs.com is Chris Walker again, with address cwalker@secretlabs.com.
The Netduino project looks very impressive, and if it is the work of a few people, they are very smart and very capable indeed. But it doesn't look anything like a community-driven project. Only one person is visible, and I find it hard to believe that he has developed the hardware, the software, the book, the documentation, the video tutorials, the forums. All in isolation from the hacker community.

It is entirely possible that Chris Walker is independently wealthy, is an expert electronics and software hacker, is amazing at website design, and has good relations with electronics manufacturers. But I smell a rat.

Update (23 July 2011): Read the first comment for all the answers.


More about Chris Walker of Secret Labs: he has a Channel 9 account 'cwalker_secretlabs', created this year. He gave a podcast interview about the Netduino. OReilly is about to publish a book called "Getting Started with Netduino" by Chris Walker, which will be released soon. Chis Walker is listed as the CTO of Secret Labs in one article. There is what he looks like.  Later this year, he is giving a talk titled "Connecting Devices to the Cloud on Open Source Hardware and Software", at Oreilly's OSCON on July 27, 2011. His co-speaker is Colin Miller, who is a Product Manager for the .NET Micro Framework.