Rise of the microcomputer

I’ve become ridiculously excited about the Raspberry Pi. It’s a general purpose computer with a tiny foot print (about the size of a credit card) that ships as a raw board. The kicker is the price: it’s $25 for the base model and a whopping $35 for the version with an Ethernet connection. The goal of the Raspberry Pi Foundation is to promote the instruction and learning of programming and computer science through a diminutive and affordable computer, but it’s getting attention from those well beyond its original audience.

The Raspberry Pi was the first super-small, stripped down computer I noticed, though there are others hitting the market. Via released information on its APC computer last month. It’s a single board computer that comes with basic ports, a power cable and little else. It runs a version of Android that has been optimized to use a keyboard and mouse. And, like the Raspberry Pi, it has a great price point: $49.

I’m not the only one who’s excited about this new breed of microcomputers. After a two month stint on the waiting list, a Raspberry Pi distributor allowed me to give them money so that I could join others on the delivery list (which had a nine week wait of its own). I was so happy, I updated my Facebook status. It took less than a day for Via to fill its pre-order list, but I missed that window. I was so disappointed, I updated my Facebook status.

There have been stripped down platforms for hardware prototyping for a while (like Arduino), but Via and Raspberry Pi run mainstream operating systems. Now, rather than building circuits, we’re writing code. While some engineers out there may protest, it’s much easier to crack open vi and start writing code than to warm up the soldering iron and burn wires. Right now, it’s tinkerers and propeller heads that are doing crazy things with this new type of computer. My personal favorite is FishPi, an “automated trans-oceanic surface vehicle” powered by a solar panel and a Raspberry Pi.

With technical and cost barriers lowered, we’re going to start seeing some very interesting innovations come out of these tiny platforms, both commercially and intellectually. Now there are PCs-on-a-stick, which are stick-sized Android computers that you access with an HDMI port and a keyboard. Remember when getting a thumb drive at a conference was cool? Soon, the price of PCs-on-a-stick (like the MK802) will be so cheap, we’ll be getting full computers with our name badges.

While we’ve been saying for years that “computers are everywhere,” they’ve been extremely task-specific thus far. Yes, my microwave has more computing power than the Apollo moon lander, but I can’t do anything interesting with it. But now we’re about to have general purpose computers (e.g., can run web browsers and are extensible) like the MK802, Via APC and Raspberry Pi everywhere.

And I, for one, welcome our new microcomputer overlords.

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