Enabling a Hacking Culture

Compact, Single-Board Computers Are Making It Big

Next_Thing_CHIP_lIt might not look like a computer, but a device from Californian start-up Next Thing Co. could become part of the next big thing. Last Thursday, the company launched a Kickstarter campaign for a $9 computer, aiming to raise $50,000 after a month. It took just a few days to surge past that goal by a factor of ten. These low-cost, single-board PCs are creating exhilaration among the tech-savvy, and enabling new levels of creativity in a highly connected world of things.

Next Thing’s C.H.I.P. runs on a 1 GHz ARM-based single core processor, has 512MB of RAM, 4GB of flash storage, a dedicated graphics processing unit and runs a version of Linux out of the box. It has built-in Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and composite output for connecting to some screens and televisions. The company is also selling an adapter for hooking up to VGA or HDMI displays.

The hardware might not be cutting-edge today, but the specs that were top-of-the-line at the turn of the century are now available at pocket-change prices. It’s a reminder of how far computing power has come, and how cheap it is. A customizable, fully functional and incredibly portable nine-dollar computer should probably impress us more than it already does.

Raspberry Pi is the current poster child of single-board computers, and has enjoyed tremendous success in the past two years. It’s still a tech-lover’s device, but is introducing a wider audience to the potential of modular computing and enabling creativity at affordable prices.

The UK-based Raspberry Pi Foundation has sold more than five million units since its launch in 2012, making the product the fastest-selling British PC according to Wikipedia. To the untrained eye, the $35 Pi looks like a discarded computer part, but it’s being used as the guts of some innovative projects like low-cost laptops, automated cat feeders and talking toys. The technically talented are hacking together products to solve some real-world issues.

Single-board PCs are coming to market at bargain prices just in time to be inspiration for the Internet of things. The rudimentary ingredients for connected prototypes are now a few clicks away for anyone willing to invest some time.

It was encouraging to learn earlier this year that Microsoft is supporting projects on several single-board computers, and that a version of Windows 10 will be ported to the Raspberry Pi platform to encourage young developers around the world. This recognition gave the Raspberry Pi Foundation a new level of sovereignty in the industry. The experimental phase is passing for single-board computers, and they’re being viewed as very real tools of the trade.

It will be interesting to see what the crowd can do with a sub-$10 programmable chip, and the long-term implications for the computer and even smartphone market. This new category of products is bringing down barriers to entry into a connected world. Single-board PCs have become a key component in new products, and market players should take notice. Expect innovation to come from the smallest of places.

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