C.H.I.P. project

In the Elbow

Article from Issue 176/2015

"maddog" takes a look at the new C.H.I.P. project on Kickstarter that promises to produce a computer for nine dollars.

Last night, I joined a Kickstarter project [1] called C.H.I.P. that promised to create a computer for $9.00, delivered in December 2015. Although I purchased an Arduino computer last year for $9.00, other more powerful computers still were in the range of $35 or more. This Kickstarter project is a breakthrough for many reasons.

First of all, it has a 32-bit processor and can run a full operating system. I love the Arduino, but I want my computer to be able to run a full operating system as well as a single dedicated application. Knowing that the operating system is Debian based and is a modern ARM architecture gives me faith that many of the applications I use day to day will "just work."

Although C.H.I.P. has only half a gigabyte of RAM, that is the same amount as the original Raspberry Pi, and C.H.I.P. runs a newer version of the ARM architecture at 1GHz instead of 700MHz. Unlike the original version of the Raspberry Pi, it has 4GB of flash built into the computer and promises to run Debian with "over the air" updates.

Second, it has most of what I think a computer should have as peripherals: USB, WiFi 801.11b/g/n, Bluetooth, composite video, and audio in/out. If you need a screen attached, it has shields that would give you either HDMI or VGA. It also has GPIO pins, although not as numerous and varied as some other low-cost computers.

Third, C.H.I.P. runs off a battery and has a power regulator on board that could charge the battery or run the computer or both given a 5V supply.

Fourth, it will have a little portable case that will also provide a QWERTY keyboard (much along the lines of a Blackberry) and a screen (small, but color) with its own (rechargeable) battery to keep the unit going for about five hours. The bare motherboard simply plugs into the back of the case. The case also has a set of breakout GPIO pins, a hole for attaching a lanyard to hang it around the neck (good for young people who sometimes forget things), and a hole that makes a little "stand" for the unit using only a pencil pushed through it.

Fifth, it has been promised that all the software and hardware will be Open Source. In the case of the hardware, the project details that the schematics, PCB layout, and the bill of materials will be available.

All of this is good, you might think, but why excitement over this one project? It is because of "the elbow."

You might have heard of the elbow in a business course; it is the point in the cost/benefits curve at which people's habits change from considering purchase to "Sure, why not?" – the point at which items can be given away as marketing shlock at trade shows instead of having to be sold or the point at which some benefactor will say, "I will buy one of those for every high school student in my town." If the town has 8,000 students in high school, a Raspberry Pi will cost that person more than a quarter of a million dollars; with this Kickstarter project, it will cost them $72,000. That's still a lot of money, but it's within the realm of greater reason, particularly when it may be tax deductible.

The elbow also applies to derivative projects. In the past, engineers might build control logic out of switches, relays, tubes, and discrete transistors. As microcontrollers became cheaper and more rugged, a lot of that mechanical and discrete logic was replaced by microcontrollers, often specifically designed for a purpose. Today, many new products have been inspired by the low cost of systems such as the Arduino, the Raspberry Pi, and the BeagleBone Black single-board computers (SBCs). Designers of new products are content to "throw an SBC at it" and bring the new product to market that much faster.

Of course, in many countries, even $9.00 for a computer is not in the elbow yet, but the computing industry keeps getting closer, and there will be more and more affordable learning situations and products because computing is replacing other types of more expensive logic.

When I started with computers, the cost of even the simplest computer was measured in millions of dollars and hundreds of square feet of floor space. When I was teaching (about 30 years ago), one of my students asked me what the future of computing would be like. I told them that one day the computer would be under a glob of black goo attached to the cover on a printer.

The future is almost here.


  1. C.H.I.P.: http://tinyurl.com/o5jvvyv

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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