In the last 60 years the computer has evolved from a machine that filled an entire room to a device that can fit in your pocket. And just as the electronics have shrunk, so has the price – opening up the prospect of cheap and pervasive computing.
One of the machines at the vanguard of the low-cost computing revolution is the Raspberry Pi, a $25 Linux box that will go on sale before the end of February. Despite its budget price the Raspberry Pi still packs a punch, with the multi-media capabilities of an original Xbox console, 1080p video playback, and general processing power of a Pentium II/III. Specs-wise the credit card-sized computer is powered by a 700MHz ARM chip inside a Broadcom BCM2835 has a single USB port and 128MB of memory, with an additional $10 buying a souped-up version with two USB ports, 10/100 ethernet and 256MB of memory.
Eben Upton, director of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the Cambridge-based charitable body set up to produce the machine, predicts that Raspberry Pi will be the first of many $25 machines.
"In a year's time everybody will be doing this. It's not loss making, there's money in it. I think there's enough value that once we've proven that it's doable a lot of people are going to jump in," he told TechRepublic.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation hopes to speed the shift towards low-cost computing along by encouraging other manufacturers and hobbyist computer makers to make their own low-cost computers by open sourcing the design of the Raspberry Pi board in future.
"People often say ‘Don't you worry that somebody is going to steal your idea?' but to be honest, deep down, I've always hoped that somebody would," Upton said.
The shift to ultra-low cost computing has become possible because computer chips with very low manufacturing costs now have the processing muscle to deliver what consumers want from their computing devices, Upton said.
"This is an inevitable trend if you look at direction of travel and the amount of performance you can get out of an Arm-based platform," he said.
Upton said that as bottom-end machines grow in power, consumers will become increasingly unwilling to pay top dollar for a premium device.
"People are increasingly going to be thinking about what they can put up with, rather than paying over the odds for that extra performance margin on the top."
The trend towards consumers embracing cheap, "good enough" computing can already been seen today, in the market for dedicated graphics cards for PCs, Upton said. Whereas people were once willing to pay for dedicated graphics cards for desktop machines, graphic chips integrated into computer motherboards are now good enough to support 1080p video playback and the graphics needs of most consumers.
"Look at GPUs on PCs: hardly anyone buys a graphics card these days, people will put up with graphics from integrated chips. The embedded integrated chipsets are good enough for what they need, even for some games," he said.
The shrinking price of information processing is making it economically viable to embed computers in devices where it would not have been possible in the past or to replace expensive bespoke computer platforms with arrays of these low-cost devices. Take the Raspberry Pi, one of the many uses planned for the machine is to place it on a satellite and see how well it functions in the harsh environment of space.
"There are some extreme automation plans out there," said Upton.
The potential advantage of Raspberry Pi or other what Upton calls commercial off the shelf (COTS) devices, over traditional satellite computer platforms is that COTS devices are far cheaper than the existing satellite computing systems, which have to be customised to work in extremes of temperature and while being bombarded with cosmic radiation.
"You can send 100 COTS platforms into space for the price of one build-spec platform, and even if they don't have good survivability you're probably still left with 10 of that after a year," said Upton
Of course, people have already dreamt up an array of other uses for the Raspberry Pi: controlling robots, automation applications, running home media centres, running dev platforms or turning it into a Sinclair QL emulator. Not bad for a device built with the modest aim of encouraging kids to code, by providing a low-cost device that can boot into programming environments for computer languages such as Python or C.
The advent of cheap, pervasive computing is inevitable, said Upton, but he hopes that computing platforms will remain open, general purpose machines that can be tinkered with by anyone, rather than closed systems locked to a particular appliance or service.
"I think this is the future. The only question for me is when these cheap, low power computing platforms are going to be open and whether they are going to be based on open software or are going to be closed, appliance like devices. What we're hoping to do is to influence the evolution of these devices so they end up open and not closed."
Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.