Editor’s Note:For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ?+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but it’ll all be in plain english. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.
Barring a significant change in course, history tells us that the computers of tomorrow will be faster, smaller, better and cheaper than the computers of today. We began with warehouse-sized machines that were barely capable of basic algebra, and we’ve arrived at the Raspberry Pi. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a full-fledged computer that can fit snugly inside of an Altoids tin, and it costs just $35. Contrast that with the towering beige box that millions of Americans were purchasing from the likes of Dell and Gateway a score ago, and you’ll realize that we’ve come a very long way in a brief period of time.
The Raspberry Pi is special for a few reasons. For one, it’s not vaporware. Optimists have been promising impossibly cheap PCs for decades, but tangible results have been few and far between. The latest Pi — known as the RasPi 2 — proves that there’s enough demand for cheap, tiny PCs that an unheard-of company could produce not just an initial model, but a followup. Second, it’s not mobile. One would think that this would hurt sales — desktops as a whole have been declining for some time now in favor of laptops, tablets, phablets and less stationary options. And yet, the $35 price tag keeps the Pi 2 popular.
It’s a full-fledged computer that can fit snugly inside of an Altoids tin, and it costs just $35.
In addition to the board, you’ll need a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse and (ideally) a wireless Internet signal. Think of it this way: the Pi 2 takes the place of that giant beige desktop you had a decade ago, but you’ll still need an assortment of accessories to actually interact with it. In practice, many who purchase the Pi 2 load a version of the open-sourced Linux operating system onboard in order to write code for apps or other robotics projects. Others program the board to be the brains of a larger operation; for instance, DIYers have installed Pi computers into cars in order to bring Spotify and YouTube viewing to the console. Since it’s a fully open system, you can just plant a basic screen in the dashboard, tether your smartphone for Internet access and connect an embedded microphone to control it all using your voice. Patient souls can go so far as to use it for browsing the Web and checking email — it’s a full-fledged computer, after all.
In a sense, the Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone, LinkIt ONE, Edison and countless other small, inexpensive Linux machines are establishing a new world order for computing. Here’s a look at how.
Impact on Software Development: Those who follow the ins and outs of technology understand that software engineers are in high demand. There’s something of a talent gold rush still ongoing in the land of apps, and he who develops the best, monetizes the best. Job options are plentiful for those who speak C++, Java, PHP, Python, Ruby, SQL and Swift. But to learn said languages, you need more than books; you need practice. A $35 Linux-based computer is the ideal sandbox, and it dramatically lowers the cost of knowledge. Your parents needed a computer science degree from an esteemed university. You just need an inquisitive mind, access to a search engine and $35.
Unparalleled Advancements in Technology: What happens when you aren’t relying on a precious few to ensure that technology as a whole progresses? A lot more progress. Sorting out things like covering vast expanses of the Kenyan countryside with wireless Internet; producing voice recognition systems that sound more like humans; building surgical robots and constructing things as zany as the Hyperloop become a lot more feasible when legions of people are familiar with what it takes. To boot, these tiny computers force programmers to develop in more efficient ways. We’re all clamoring for less power consumption, smaller footprints, fewer carbon emissions and better battery life. By asking engineers to make magic happen on something as simplistic as a Raspberry Pi, it’s ensuring that future developments happen more quickly and for more people.
Access for the Masses: It’s unlikely that the next billion people to reach the Internet will do so via Linux. Outside of Windows 10 Embedded, which is perhaps even more obscure, that’s the only operating system that’ll hum along on a RasPi. But it’s only a matter of time before a $35 computer runs an OS that has mass appeal. Even today, the Moto E can be purchased for under $130 free and clear, and it utilizes Android — the world’s most popular mobile system. The limiting factor for much of the world when it comes to computing is cost. It’s not distrust, and it’s not fear; it’s simply a matter of budget.
A Changing Mobile Landscape: More people are coming online for the first time via a mobile device than ever before. In places like Brazil, Indonesia and India, one’s first smartphone is likely their first computer. We’re quickly reaching a point where the miniaturization of technology, coupled with rapid declines in component pricing, are enabling phones to be used as bona fide computers. The first sub-$100 Android phones were truly awful to use. But now? The aforementioned Moto E is a gem, pleasing even the most demanding of technology critics. It’s not tough to forecast the future here. Give it a few more years, and we’ll have acceptable performance on a phone that rivals even the screen-less RasPi in price.
There will always be a market for flagship, high-end devices. As such, Apple will continue to sell its latest and greatest iPhone for hundreds upon hundreds of dollars to those who can afford it, and Alienware will continue to hawk $5,000 desktops to gamers who live on the cutting edge. But the Raspberry Pi has proven that it is possible to create a personal computer for less than some will pay for dinner tonight. Even in the poorest sectors of the world, the Pi can be purchased for what equates to a month’s wage. Think back 25 years, and you’ll recall that Dell and Gateway hit their stride when selling desktops to Americans that cost — roughly — a month’s wage.
What the Pi’s $35 price tag represents is the destruction of the access barrier that was most impenetrable in the world of computing. What happens next is wholly dependent on a league of curious minds that wouldn’t have had access to a coding box just five years ago.