When you read about small board computers such as the Raspberry PI family or the new C.H.I.P., there is a tendency to stress how they are educational or for hobbyists. That’s true. Hobbyists (such as myself) love these inexpensive, tiny computers as do teachers. They are cheap and powerful and perfectly designed for tinkering with embedded systems projects.
To see these products as just toys or teaching tools is to misunderstand their true impact. Instead, they represent the vanguard of the Internet of Things (IoT) and robotics. Small board computers provide professional engineers and developers a way of prototyping hardware-software interfaces and systems without the cost of spinning up custom hardware. Truthfully, this is not all that new. Manufacturers have always made development boards available to engineers to encourage them to build hardware using their semiconductors. What is different about the small board computers is that computer core of the product is already complete and compatible with open source software. This allows software developers to concentrate on their own code. Small board computers make it so that hardware engineers to focus on the sensors, motors, and other hardware that represents their own unique value.
In case there is doubt that big computing vendors are taking small board computers seriously consider IBM and Microsoft. IBM has been posting blogs for developers instructing them in the use of their products, including IBM Watson and their IoT platform, with a Raspberry Pi. They are even giving away 1000 new Raspberry PI 3 products to developers who sign up for the IBM Watson IoT Platform on Bluemix before March 14, 2016. Microsoft also provides support for Raspberry Pi for their Windows 10 IoT Core operating system. When the Raspberry PI 3 was announced at the end of February, they immediately announced their support for it.
Companies such as Microsoft and IBM don’t port-and-support lightly. It’s one thing for Ubuntu to come up with a distro for a small board computer, as is the case with their Ubuntu Snappy Core. It’s quite another for publicly traded tech giants. Even if the engineering isn’t particularly expensive (which it often is) the support for these resources can be. To see these companies paying any mind at all to these small board computers is recognition that they matter to professional hardware and software developers. Small board computers, and their cousins the open source microcontroller boards such as the Arduino series, are clearly expanding beyond their original educational and hobbyist markets.
Aside from their use as prototype and development tools, these small board computers will be used in two ways. First, the boards themselves will become embedded in connected products. There are already products like this. In fact, the first product from Nextthing before they created the C.H.I.P. was OTTO, a hackable camera built around a Raspberry Pi. Another way that small board computers will find their way into real world products is through their design. The C.H.I.P for example is an open source hardware design. A developer could use a standard $9 C.H.I.P. to develop the software and prototype hardware while incorporating the design into a final, integrated, product.
Small board computers are having the same effect on embedded hardware projects as open source software did on software. They provide a head start when designing new products that involve hardware and software. The computers may be tiny but the impact on the tech business will be huge.