The Coming Tiny/Cheap Computer Revolution

By Doug Mohney March 02, 2012

A pair of recently announced tiny and cheap computers illustrates how the IT world is ready to shift again. The Raspberry Pi and cstick Cotton Candy will deliver low-cost and low-profile hardware respectively that will be the delight of hackers around the world.  We'll see new products, new applications -- and new security challenges.

Raspberry Pi was designed to be a low-cost learning tool for students, but hardware geeks have embraced the low-cost machine as a platform for projects and potential riches. There's enough graphics horsepower on the device to handle BluRay video, so enthusiasts are snapping up boards to build customized apps to their heart's content.  

At $35, the Raspberry Pi Model B sold out its first run of 10,000 boards, goggled up by hardware enthusiasts in a matter minutes after it went on sale February 29.   The non-profit Raspberry Pi foundation has suspended orders of the Model B computer and put its website into static mode until web site traffic slowed down -- how many products can make that claim?

PC World reports the $25 version of Pi -- the Model A -- will be available in a month to six weeks. Both computers are stripped down, no-frill boards capable of running several different flavors of Linux and include a Broadcom BCM2835 SOC chip with a 700 MHz ARM processor, a graphics GPU, RCA video and audio out, HDMI, 256MB of RAM, USB port, and an SD card slot. The B model adds an additional USB port and a 10/100 Ethernet controller.

Production and distribution for Pi is currently licensed to two British firms with production taking place in China. The Raspberry Pi foundation get a small profit from each one sold -- think about that for a moment, since the production firms are making money as well -- which will be rolled straight back into the charity.

Gizmodo says the Pi can be used to make a media center, simple network storage, a remote control for your work PC, a home-brew voicemail system running FreeSwitch, and a low cost smart TV. Do I need to spell out what one might do with a low-cost PC remote control in combination with free software? A low cost voice mail system has DEFCON presentation screaming all over it.

More expensive at $200 per unit, but smaller and ready for plug-and-play work, FXI's Cotton Candy can be mistaken for a fat USB memory stick, but it's far far more. It incorporates an ARM Cortex A9 running at 1.2 GHz, a quad-core GPU, 1 GB of RAM, micro SD support, media support for up to 1080p video, an HDMI connector, a USB connector for power and mass storage, WiFi support through 802.11n and Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR. It runs Android and Linux.

FXI is pitching Cotton Candy as a device to allow users a single secure point of access to personal cloud services and apps, a companion device for everything from smartphones up to desktop PCs, as well as add smart capabilities to any display that supports USB mass storage.   For example, it could turn a stock HDTV with a USB port into a “smart” TV, with network connectivity provided via WiFI and other devices such as a keyboard or a headset added via Bluetooth.

Since it can hold up to 64GB of storage using a microSD card, you could use it as a smart storage device to manage and sync content across tablets, PCs and cloud storage.   Carry it to a party, and plug it in to look at pictures and movies. Cotton Candy is expected to be available in limited quantities in Q1 of 2012, with big quantities available by Q3 2012.

Just as smartphones and tablets have delivered new applications and new ways of building devices, I believe the coming wave of tiny and cheap (T&C) computers presents fresh opportunities for VARs and resellers. T&C provides platforms for building easily customizable devices, meaning users can get the solutions they want faster and look at solutions they never would have considered before due to the relatively low-cost of building one.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

Contributing Editor

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