Computing’s race to free

e5f24577375ff5c61ebfdf1f040d2a08_originalMy desk seems to be flooded with notices about smaller and cheaper computers these days. $9 is the new low.

I, being a digital dinosaur, remember when a computer was something special and expensive. Now of course they are ubiquitous in our western world, but still pretty expensive. One of the big things that the Raspberry Pi has achieved, is opening people’s eyes to a new price-point for computers (even though the Pi is disingenuous about a total price when you add on the required peripherals).

The C.H.I.P. is on Kickstarter at the moment and for US$9 you get a credit-card sized board with 1Ghz processor, 512Mb RAM and 4Gb storage complete with WiFi and Bluetooth. That’s becoming unbelievably cheap. Now to be fair C.H.I.P. suffers from the same issue as the Pi – to do anything with it requires the purchase of a bunch of peripherals. But $9 is getting so close to a-free-computer-in-every-pack of cereal territory that it’s not funny. I’m not endorsing C.H.I.P., by the way; I’d recommend having a good look at the comments before backing them. My point isn’t this single campaign, but the proliferation of cheaper and cheaper computing.

I wonder if the increasing use of the cloud is what is driving some of this: If you are making use of the cloud, the power of your local computer becomes less of an issue. While there’s got to be some truth in that thought, there also has to be a bottom line here where there’s no money to be made. You have to sell a lot of units at $9 to make a profit of any sort. Now if you’re the Raspberry Pi with a non-profit ulterior motive – getting kids coding – your business plan looks a bit different. For a normal business seeking a profit, it’s sort of hard to see that the market can bear too many ultra-cheap computers. That said  C.H.I.P. has already been backed to the tune of $1.55 million, so someone might be making money.

At the moment there seem to be two groups who are really into these ultra-cheap computers: educators and makers. An exposed hunk of electronics to which you need to add peripherals is not going to appeal to the majority of people who are, quite clearly, looking for Apple’s polished industrial design and safe, gated working space. So outside some particular segments, this generation of ultra-cheap computer is not going to shake the world.

Perhaps, what these ultra-cheap computers are doing, though, is signalling a change. When you can make a business around selling a computer for less than ten dollars it starts to change the way the market operates. And that change has to spill upwards.

It’s not hard to envisage a likely scenario for the future being the printer model of doing business – heavily discount the hardware and then charge for the consumables. Imagine Google chromebooks costing virtually nothing but the profit sitting in a subscription access to their cloud services.

It feels like we’re sitting on the edge of another shift in computing. As computers get increasingly tiny and increasingly cheap, new business models are going to emerge. Models that don’t just provide opportunities for some cool making, but which radically change the way we look upon computers and their place in our world. Maybe it wont be about a free computer in every box of cornflakes, maybe every box of conrnflakes will be a computer. We do live in interesting times.

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