It is amazing to think about how many great innovations, businesses, millions of dollars, and learning has come out of tinkering, testing, trying, tweaking, and messing-about. The obvious examples are the tech giants, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who changed our lives forever, but most people don’t realize their friends, family, and neighbors who are doing all kinds of creating and intellectual playing. From amateur musicians strumming a guitar in the evening or the mash-up artists posting on YouTube to the inventors creating the next kitchen widget or technology for the green energy movement. Just this weekend, I was talking with my neighbor about his grandfather’s project to create a process for making pellets from corn stalks for home furnaces and how most of the testing will be done in a shed next to our house.
During Gates and Jobs’ years they had the DIY computers (e.g. Commadore 64) and lately the DIY community has hardware like the Arduino and BeagleBoard. The Arduino was a cheap and simple way for people to do some quick and dirty electronics without much knowledge of programming or electronics. The BeagleBoard is a full-fledged computer for those with a bit deeper pockets who want some more processing power. A device in the middle has, recently, come to the market with a device known as the Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi has the power of the BeagleBoard but priced right for all ages, like the Arduino, at $25 for the base model and $35 the model with ethernet. It does not have as much of the basic electronics connections but has all the features expected from a full-fledged computer: ARM processor, full 1080p HDMI, audio out, USB, Linux OS, etc. The Cambridge University professors who formed the non-profit organization saw deficit in undergraduate students’ lack of general computer knowledge and looked to provide the platform for experimentation and learning.
Although it is not available for purchase I already have grand plans for a HDTV recorder (‘TiVo’) and media server for our new HDTV. It will be low-power, have full-HD output, controllable over the network (home or away), low-cost, and a central place for computer back-ups. I have computers that I could use as a tv-recorder and back-up server and use my laptop for HD-output but the Raspberry Pi is all-in-one and I feel like I am supporting something important.
It is always refreshing to see people who are so interesting in helping other people learn and make it available at such a low-cost. I won’t be trying to get every ounce of processing power out of it or doing major software development, but it will keep me tinkering with Linux and will always be available if I want to try out some multimedia or server software. When I started playing with Ubuntu (popular Linux Distribution) five-or-so years ago I wasn’t thinking about what I might get out of it, I was just interested in learning about Linux. My, rather basic, knowledge led to another bullet on my resume for graduate studies in computational research and, eventually, becoming system admin for our research group’s computer cluster.