“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
It’s worth bearing this famous quote in mind when calling to mind the incredibly exciting Pandora handheld; when we interviewed the guys behind the project back in August 2008 the plan was to launch this groundbreaking machine at the start of 2009. It never happened.
This was hardly a massive shock – given the ambitious nature of the venture, delays were always on the cards. However, we were keen to get the word straight from the horse’s mouth and spoke to Craig Rothwell – one of the key figures behind Pandora – to bring you this exclusive interview.
Pocket Gamer: The original release date for the Pandora has been and gone. Can you give us a little insight into why the launch has slipped and the issues you’ve encountered since we last spoke to you?
Craig Rothwell: The main issue was our bank letting down our main distributor. Incredibly, once the bank saw how much interest there was in ordering the Pandora they decided it was too much of a risk to them and froze the account.
I don't think they really believed some chaps from random places around the world could make something like the Pandora which, as far as they were concerned, took millions of dollars and a big company like Sony or Nintendo.
So we had to start the whole process again.
The silver lining from that was that the Pandora was able to go from 128MB to 256MB of RAM and have more internal NAND, too.
How badly has the global ‘credit crunch’ impacted the production of the Pandora?
The main issue is that because currencies have fluctuated so much the Pandora is more expensive in some countries now. Another issue is suppliers of parts such as the LCD no longer keep parts in stock, so built times are longer.
I suppose it's best to start in this kind of situation, things can only get better. We are hardly going to let a bunch of bankers get the better of us.
Some of the issues you’ve had to cope with are things that major companies like Nintendo and Sony would simply throw money at to solve, but you’re obviously a smaller operation and don’t have that option. Have there been any moments when you thought that perhaps what you are attempting might not be possible?
Picture this: You get a new car, a sports car, and you and some friends take it for a spin, off on to the moors.
Then the car starts to misfire; then it gets dark. You don't have a map.
At this point you of course have to find a solution and work though it, and that's rather how the Pandora project went and maybe that's the best position to be in – because you know you have to solve things and you come up the next morning smiling.
It's probably true that if we went back to the start we would not try something quite so ambitious, good thing we didn't know then what we know now or the Pandora might not have happened.
How has the community dealt with the delays?
They have been very good about it; they (and usually any niche market) are used to delays as it's the nature of cutting-edge projects. At the same time we have been able to get drivers for the 3D chip going and post them on going videos of what is happening.
Have you had to make any significant changes to the hardware or case design as the device moves closer to the stage of mass production?
The only changes we have made are improvements; I don't think we would dare downgrade anything!
How is the software side of things progressing? Has the operating system been completed and what kind of emulators and applications are supported at present?
Due to the delay this is one area which has gone on leaps and bounds, rather than getting a v0.1 OS customers are going to be seeing a very mature OS from the start with things like 3D and Video acceleration from the start. Quake III runs, high resolution video plays and full desktops operate smoothly.
When the final unit ships what kind of software do you expect to bundle with it?
We expect to ship with a basic OS which will be able to run in iPhone-like 'big icons' set up, or you will be able to choose to run a full desktop like you would see on a PC. There will also be stuff like Firefox, other applications, games and demos to show off the hardware.
Once the first lot of units is out of the door will you be concentrating solely on software or will you be looking to tweak the hardware, pending feedback from the community?
Well we hope the hardware will be pretty solid. Then the next step is to ramp up production and see just how big the project can get. We will always be updating the OS but the neat nature of open source means a lot of this is done for us.
It’s been hinted that commercial games might become a reality on the Pandora. Can you give us a little more information on this? Have you been approached by any interested publishers or developers?
There are some interested in the OMAP3 platform which the Pandora uses – this is quite a unique situation; the Pandora does not need to attract developers by itself, the OMAP3 platform does – which is to be in millions of peoples hands via phones, netbooks, PDAs and games systems. I think we will see commercial games for the OMAP3 which should run on the Pandora.
What lessons have you learnt from developing the Pandora and what would you do differently if you were able to start over again?
I think we would be able to avoid so many mistakes. It's a learning curve and people have no idea how much is involved in making a product like this, you see many of these systems come out of China but the truth is most of them are just the same internals with a different case on the outside. To do the whole lot, from the ground up, is exceptionally complex and time consuming.
If we did this again – let's say the Pandora 2 in a few years – we could certainly move faster with a much more accurate plan and it would probably be an enjoyable experience as opposed to a bit of a nightmare.
Ironically, Gamepark’s Wiz – which is seen as the Pandora’s rival – has also experienced delays. Are you still looking to distribute the machine in the UK via your own company and what’s the latest you’ve heard about its status?
Yes we will still be distributing it, as well as various other devices like the A320 and the Smart Q5. It's just a sign of the times right now that projects like this have delays. GPH might have had similar bank issues to us but they choose not to be open about their situation.
I understand we will see the Wiz in May.
If anyone reading this is interested in purchasing a machine, are there any pre-order slots available for the first batch? If not, when do you expect the second batch to roll of the production line?
It is possible to order one from the first batch, we kept about 200 places free during the re-order period for people who were not sure if they wanted a unit – those untaken slots are now available to new customers, if they want a unit they can email email@example.com.
Our thanks go to Craig Rothwell for taking the time out to speak with us. The official Pandora Development Blog can be found at: http://www.openpandora.org/blog.php