Can A $9 Computer Spark A New Wave Of Tinkering And Innovation? | KUOW News and Information

Can A $9 Computer Spark A New Wave Of Tinkering And Innovation?

Jan 21, 2016
Originally published on February 29, 2016 2:08 pm

When the first Mac computer came out in 1984, it cost nearly $2,500 and had a floppy drive for storage. In 2016, a spate of computers with a price as low as $5 and a lot more storage are hitting the market, and they may be opening up a new era of experimentation.

Recently, I got a look at one of these low-cost computers — the $9 CHIP, which has 4 gigabytes of storage.

It is very basic. It fits in the palm of my hand and has various electronic components soldered on. Frankly, it looks like something I'd find in a repair shop. But it's actually easy to set up. It can connect to Wi-Fi. It has Bluetooth.

Dave Rauchwerk, the CEO of Next Thing Co., which makes the CHIP, showed me his Kickstarter-backed computer. "When you take it out of the box you can connect a keyboard, Bluetooth and mouse really easily," he says. "It also has a USB port so if you wanted to, you could plug into any old keyboard you can find."

The keyboard, mouse and screen are not included, so that would add to the price. But getting those on the cheap is pretty easy these days.

CHIP's Kickstarter campaign got the backing of nearly 40,000 people and raised $2 million. One pledge of $150 came from a teacher at the Nelson County Area Technology Center, a technical high school in Kentucky.

Its principal, Jeremy Booher, says cost has always gotten in the way of giving computers to all of his 400 or so students.

"Any of my programs, it's 'That costs too much. You can't buy it,' " he says. "But with a $9 price point it almost virtually eliminates that excuse."

And CHIP is easy to use, says 17-year-old student Jacob Smith.

"With a normal computer we have to pull the case apart and work around all these big pieces," he says. "So this has just been much easier to learn and work off of."

Smith's class got to see CHIP before most people because his teacher helped back the Kickstarter. The class took apart a Star Wars toy — the Millennium Falcon — and wired it with LED lights using CHIP. Booher says what's great is that the students can learn something while they're having fun.

"And this is one way to do it, by intriguing their interest and seeing what's on the cutting edge of technology," Booher says. "If we were still using typewriters and using Microsoft DOS, then obviously people come in and fall asleep."

And unlike Microsoft products, CHIP has both open-source software (Linux) and hardware.

And students are just the start of the groups who might be excited by this cheap little computer. The CHIP is one of several very low-cost basic computers — under $100 — that have hit the market in the past year or will be on the market in the coming year. Most can be purchased online. There's the BeagleBone, the Endless Mini and the Raspberry Pi Zero.

All this is possible because the prices of microprocessors and other computer components have fallen.

Tom Petrocelli, an analyst with Neuralytix, an IT market research firm, says we are at a moment similar to the one that happened about three decades ago with software.

"When software became a more open endeavor, when anyone could afford to buy a PC and write code in their basement or in their den, we saw all kinds of software come out. All kinds of applications," he says.

Petrocelli predicts that cheap hardware will spark a similar era in the U.S. and around the world for inventors and tinkerers to find uses we can't even imagine. Some of them could even come from that group of students in Kentucky.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right, let's dial back the calendar to 1984. That's when the first Mac computer came out. It cost nearly $2,500, and you got a computer that had a floppy drive for storage. Well, fast forward to 2016. A spate of computers, complete with storage included, at a price tagged as low as five bucks, are hitting the market right now. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, low-cost hardware might open up an era of experimentation with new products.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: I didn't know what to expect when I came to look at CHIP, a $9 computer.

DAVE RAUCHWERK: Why don't you - why don't we open one of these boxes so you can see what the actual box process is?

SYDELL: This is Dave Rauchwerk, the CEO of Next Thing Co. that makes CHIP.

RAUCHWERK: So we'll take the CHIP out - right? - which is in a little, tiny, anti-static bag.

SYDELL: CHIP is very basic. It fits in the palm of my hand, and has various electronic components soldered on it. Frankly, it looks like something you'd find in a repair shop. But it has four gigabytes of storage, and it's actually really easy to set up. It can connect to Wi-Fi. It has Bluetooth.

RAUCHWERK: When you take it out of the box, you can connect a keyboard, Bluetooth and mouse, like, really easily. And it also has a USB port so if you wanted to, you could just plug in any old keyboard you could find.

SYDELL: The keyboard, mouse and screen are not included, so that would add to the price. But getting those on the cheap is pretty easy these days. CHIP was funded with a Kickstarter campaign that got the backing of nearly 40,000 people and raised $2 million. One pledge of $150 came from a teacher at the Nelson County Area Technology Center, a technical high school in Kentucky. Its principal, Jeremy Booher, says cost has always gotten in the way of giving computers to all of his 400 or so students.

JEREMY BOOHER: Any of my programs, it's - that costs too much, you can't buy it. You can't buy it because it costs too much. But with a $9 price point, that - you know, it almost virtually eliminates that excuse.

SYDELL: Booher and a class of IT students at the school spoke with me on Skype. And CHIP is really easy to use, says 17-year-old Jacob Smith.

JACOB SMITH: With a normal computer, we have to pull the case apart and work around all of these big pieces, so this has just been much easier to learn and work off of.

SYDELL: Smith's class got to see CHIP before most people because his teacher helped back the Kickstarter. The class took apart a "Star Wars" toy, the Millennium Falcon, and wired it with LED lights using CHIP. Principal Booher says what's great is that the students can learn something while they're having a lot of fun.

BOOHER: And this is one way to do it, by intriguing their interest and seeing what's on the cutting edge of technology and where technology's going. If we were still using typewriters and using Microsoft DOS, then obviously people come in and fall asleep.

SYDELL: And students are just the start of who might be excited by this cheap little computer. The CHIP is one of several very low-cost, basic computers - like, under 100 bucks - that have hit the market in the last year or will be on the market in the coming year. Most can be purchased online. There's the BeagleBone, the Endless Mini and the Raspberry Pi Zero. All this is possible because the prices of microprocessors and other computer components have fallen. Tom Petrocelli, an analyst with Neuralytix, an IT market research firm, thinks that we're at a moment similar to the one that happened about three decades ago with software.

TOM PETROCELLI: When software became a more open endeavor, when anyone could afford to buy a PC and write code in their basement or in their den, we saw all kinds of software come out. All kinds of applications.

SYDELL: With really cheap hardware, it can open up new possibilities in the developing world and here at home for investors and tinkerers to find uses we can't even imagine. Some of them could even come from that group of students in Kentucky. Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: