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What’s the cheapest phone you’ve ever seen? I’m not talking about those zero-down, subsidized phones offered on contract — believe me, those “free” phones do wind up costing you. No, I’m talking about a functional phone with the tiniest overall monetary footprint.

Give up? Well Andrew “Bunnie” Huang didn’t. He went looking for the most inexpensive phone he could find, and wound up with the “Gongkai” phone, a $12 bargain-basement device from the Mingtong Digital Mall in Shenzhen.

Is it me, or is this actually kind of cool-looking?

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This cheapie cell phone costs less than the price of dinner, yet it somehow boasts Bluetooth, quad-band GSM and MP3 player, all without contracts and carrier locks. It even comes with accessories (charger, cable and protective silicone sleeve). Of course, there’s no touchscreen here. That’s an old-school OLED display. And according to Huang, the casing is a snap-together deal that uses no screws — everything is soldered right onto the board.

This phone is the product of China’s version of “open source” movement, which Huang calls “Gongkai.” He says that those fluent with Chinese could probably tap into it and even build own of these for themselves for practically nothing.

if you know a bit of Chinese, and know the right websites to go to, you can download schematics, board layouts, and software utilities for something rather similar to this phone…”for free”. I could, in theory, at this point attempt to build a version of this phone for myself, with minimal cash investment. It feels like open-source, but it’s not: it’s a different kind of open ecosystem.

He explains that Gongkai has become a “self-sustaining innovation ecosystem” that exists separate from western ideas of open-source.

. . .Gongkai was also seeded by hardy ideas that came from the west. These ideas fell on the fertile minds of the Pearl River delta, took root, and are evolving. Significantly, gongkai isn’t a totally lawless free-for-all. It’s a network of ideas, spread peer-to-peer, with certain rules to enforce sharing and to prevent leeching. It’s very different from Western IP concepts, but I’m trying to have an open mind about it.

It’s amazing what can happen when people are allowed unbridled access to ideas. Sure, this won’t run Pandora, Facebook or Netflix, but imagine what it could do for developing nations and other downtrodden regions.

The list of specs follows. And if you’re interested in more about the mechanics and hardware that goes into this device, be sure to check out Bunnie Huang’s blog. It’s a fascinating blog for anyone who’s interested in an international perspective on technology and emerging capitalism.

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