When I ask Michael Mrozek, aka EvilDragon – and henceforth ED – what he likes best about the Pandora, the open-source gaming handheld he helped create, he says, “The community.” Not the unit’s 10+ hours of battery life or its beautiful hi-res screen or the wonderfully tactile D-pad or the twin analog nubs or the Linux OS with full X desktop or the amazing amount of homegrown software sprouting up by the day, but the community. “Seriously. And all the nice people helping us out, the devs and everyone else … you can’t thank those guys enough. They have become close friends for me.”

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The OpenPandora project began when ED teamed up with Craig Rothwell, M. Fatih Kilic, and Michael Weston – enthusiasts of open handhelds such as the Korean-made GP2X and GP32 – to plan a device of their own. “Our first idea was basically a GP32 with proper batteries and gaming controls – but then we thought it would be outdated and we probably should use a better CPU. So we started to think what we’d want,” explains ED. The Pandora was conceived when they turned to the GP32X community boards for ideas.

When shut, the Pandora looks like a portly, matte black DSi, but the comparison ends there. Below its nubs and D-pad, the Pandora sports a full qwerty keyboard; turn it on and its 800×480 hi-res touchscreen offers you the choice of console mini-menu or full PC desktop. Designed from the start around emulation and homebrew, Pandora’s app site now boasts over 50 emulators (from MSX to PSX) and more than 200 homebrew games and ports – including Zelda remakes, ScummVM, Doom and Baldur’s Gate. “A device like this can only live with a community around it,”says ED. “But we were certainly surprised by the patience the community had (and still has!).”

The Pandora nearly didn’t make it. With a gestation longer than an elephant’s, its development has seen DS incarnations come and go. Rashly billed by its creators for a release back in 2007 – well before the DSi hit stores – production only recently hit its stride in the last few months, when the 3DS became everyone’s favorite new toy. Worse, many pre-orders placed in late 2008 at just over $300 have yet to be fulfilled. The Pandora was beleaguered by many production snags: unreliable suppliers, faulty parts and the inexperience of the team made a slow process slower. Because of the excessive gap between payment and delivery, PayPal canceled all pre-orders and credit card companies enforced refunds. But the team’s openness – and the understanding that these are just a bunch of guys with a crazy idea and day jobs – incites goodwill, and pre-orders were re-ordered. Those still waiting are rewarded with photos of stacked LCD cables, nubs, screens, batteries, cases and a video of the kitchen table around which these pieces are assembled by hand.

Despite the goodwill, I wondered how a small, inexperienced group of hobbyists coped with the delays and the expectations of so many. “There were multiple times where I feared the project would not succeed,” says ED. “I still fear something might go wrong now … [b]ut it was (and is) also a lot of fun and I learned a lot from it, that’s for sure.”

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The core team grew with the project, gaining a handful of software developers who became integral. “I think if just one member had not been in the team, the whole thing might not have worked out,” says ED. “Those guys were helping a lot – not just with developing the awesome firmware, but also personally. Whenever I was down in the dumps, those guys were available on IRC and helped me to continue. If one person gave up, the others helped him to get back on track. And – of course – the community helped in various ways. They trusted us, so we wanted to create them their Pandora, no matter what.”

The Pandora’s hybrid features betray it as a labor of love, not business acumen. “As we all grew up with an Amiga, we wanted a system that could emulate at least an Amiga 500 full speed. So we’d need a keyboard as well. And a hi-res display. And a touchscreen. This is basically how it started to look like it is.” Then they added WiFi and Angstrom Linux. Born of and for a particular community, will the Pandora always be a specialist device? “Yes, that’s for sure,” says ED. “The market is still big enough though, probably more than we can ever supply. There are a lot of Linux and open-source fans out there. However, you will never see it in bigger retail stores. The stuff that is sold there has to be as easy as a PSP or DS: Plug in a cart and play. The more flexible a system is, the more complicated it usually gets.”

Is there a danger of today’s smartphones drawing away Pandora’s audience? For ED, again it’s about the community. “With Android or iPhone, you never get to know the people behind the games. With the Pandora, it’s very different. You meet the developers on IRC or at the boards, talk to them. The community helps each other out. One guy codes a proper file repository, the next one an online updater for the Pandora that uses the repo. Same for coders: They help each other out with graphics, sound or code snippets. It’s like a big family… and that’s something I don’t have with a smartphone.”

In part, it’s a desire for this type of grassroots interaction and activity that leads some to “jailbreak” their iPhone or PS3. One of the things highlighted by Sony’s ongoing problems is that a significant number of people are passionate about having an open console to some degree. “In an ideal world without piracy, I don’t think Sony would lock the system down. I don’t think they wanted to prevent the users using Linux or open-source (heck, they even tried to offer Linux at the beginning!) but when it comes to piracy, there’s not much choice for them. An open-source console in the mainstream market would mostly only work with small, cheap games. No major release titles, as this would be a potential risk for those big companies.”

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For many, it’s among these small, cheap games that the best of gaming is currently found. Indeed, as ED suggests, “many indie games are nothing more than commercial homebrew games. Some homebrew made the step to become a commercial indie game as well: think of Cave Story, for example.” It’s in this kind of creative landscape that the Pandora will flourish; it has already seen ports of Gish and Lugaru. So, what’s next? “The device itself is awesome and turned out better than we imagined. However, there are still some things we want to fix and that could be a lot better. Production is reliable now but still pretty slow. We hope that can be sped up.” And will there ever be a Pandora 2? “First we need to solve the last few issues with Pandora 1 and deliver them to the folks waiting! But yes, we already have a lot of ideas for Pandora 2 … but if it happens, it will probably take a while! Let’s enjoy the Pandora 1 for now!”

ED has his priorities right: without the community, without the dozens of people giving freely of their time and skill, without the friendships, the Pandora wouldn’t exist. But I had to know – other than community – what does he like best about his Pandora? “I finally have a proper console to play all the PSX RPGs I bought years ago but never found the time to play. Now I play them in bed, on the train … Homebrew also rocks. I love how almost each day new stuff comes out to try and play, and how these games improve upon users’ feedback!” Even with its setbacks, the Pandora still has a following that large corporations, for all the millions of dollars spent on brand loyalty, should envy.

Douglas Heaven sometimes gets to play with his wife’s Pandora.

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