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What happens when computers are cheaper than LEGO blocks?

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The cost of a Raspberry Pi computer you can buy today is $25. It has a 700 MHz CPU with 256 MB RAM.?? In 2001, the Power Mac G4 Cube, with 450 MHz CPU with 64 MB RAM, cost $1,799. That is how much hardware prices have fallen. Meanwhile, a LEGO X-Wing costs $59.99.

So for $25 anyone can work on a project that uses computers at its heart, and if something breaks, they can just go buy a new one. This makes small Linux computers like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards the hardware DIYers’ new LEGO bricks. ??Last month, tens of thousands of makers from around the world came together at Maker Faire. Kids were begging their parents to help them build RC planes, buy them kits with Arduino boards and learning how to solder.

Will the DIY movement produce the next Apple?

Many of the kits these kids were using weren’t made by billion dollar corporations – they were made by cottage industry electronics businesses, hobbyists, and “fantrepreneurs.” Yes, as Chris Anderson says in his new book “Makers”, we are at the start of a hardware revolution – led from the ground up, in your home.

We have come full circle – back to April 1, 1976 when Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne started selling the Apple 1 computer kit.?? Today’s kit owes its creation to the Arduino project which pioneered this space. The Arduino board is a small, basic, almost disposable piece of hardware that integrated with a simple development environment. Originally intended for university-student projects, it quickly exploded into mainstream DIY culture – today Radioshack even stocks them.

Raspberry Pi on the other hand is a full Linux computer for basically the same price. And as such it has a vast library of existing building blocks that hackers can call upon. ??Raspberry Pi’s original stated goal is to help kids learn how to program on a computer without fear of breaking it. But at $25 dollars its allure is irresistible to hackers and inventors –  people have been using them for a wider range of ideas – like building a supercomputer out of LEGOs.

Raspberry Pi only went on sale in February, and has also sold hundreds of thousands since then.  Here are a few examples of the explosion of projects the Pi is enabling:

The rise of these Arduino and Rasbperry Pi projects is a symptom of a larger change. Because of the many niches, cost of production, and speed of innovation, it isn’t the big companies that make these kits and parts.  It is small one-person hardware companies and hobbyists around the world. ??A few examples are:

arduino, DIY, maker??The result of this movement will be the innovation that our kids build on top of it. At the Maker Faire, while I waited in line for a hotdog, I overheard two banker types behind me. ??“It is amazing how many people are here,” one said. The other countered with, “What’s great is seeing all of the kids.”

As the internet was for my generation, hardware is for the current generation. The Maker movement proves this, and every day more and more small business pop up selling the kits, parts, and gadgets to support them. I may be a bit biased as I run tindie, a marketplace for people to buy and sell homemade technology, but the success of Arduino & Raspberry Pi only reinforce my bet on the maker trend.

Recently Jay Goldberg wrote, that “hardware is dead” – arguing that the drop in hardware prices is killing margins for the large producers to the point where is impossible to make revenue off commodity technology. It is true – prices are falling quicker than the large companies can innovate. However that price drop has opened an entirely new marketplace for smaller companies to emerge. Hardware isn’t dead – it’s moving back into garages where it started.

Emile Petrone is the CEO of Tindie, a site that sells hardware kits.

12 Responses to “What happens when computers are cheaper than LEGO blocks?”

  1. Plllthtfhfhtht, I am both a microcontroller/robot enthusiast and Lego enthusiast, I can attest that neither addiction is cheap. :) In fact, its easy to point out that Lego’s (Mindstorm/Technic kits) are the gateway drug to Arduino/Netduino/Tinyduino/Parallela/FreeSoC and Raspberry Pi :)

  2. Makes me think of an idea I had many years ago about a Lego (or “blocks” generic) version of a parallel computing toy. Basically each block would be an ultra cheap 4-bit (or so) computer with a simple network I/O (maybe I2C) for inter-block communications. So when you place them next to each other it connects them. Then the child (or adult) would program each unit in a way to make the whole exponentially more powerful and teach them how to think in parallel terms at a young (or old) age, but in hopefully a fun way. Of course there would have to be some non-processor block for UI (like button/switch and led blocks), or other support functions.. Maybe a RAM block to augment the limited built-in processor memory, or persistent storage (like a flash block).

    Basically it’s taking where Lego Mindstorms left off and doing a far more scaled parallel programming/asynchronous centric version. And ideally the computing blocks would be so cheap that if one breaks, you’re out less than a dollar (if that). So what could you do with a 64 node array of 4-bit computers? How about 128 node? A little blocks map/reduce anyone?? I know there must be some geeky people out there salivating at just the thought. =)

    “Patent Pending!” ;)

  3. underweis

    @renur: according to Prof. Clayton Christensen the small fish eat away only when the small fish serve new or underserved markets. What is the new or underserved market, which problem is solved for them at which cost and should that scare the big fish? Just testing the theory. Thanks!

  4. The point being the bottom fishers eat the top like the workstation did to mini, the PC did to everybody and now ARM doing to everybody.

    Yes, sensor networks CPUs could. But the issue is Moore’s law is not ahead of us. I think a new paradigm of computing will emerge (10x lower power) and that will be the one taking over time. What t hat is, is anybody’s guess…

  5. The cost point can go much lower than that of the Arduino! There’s a volunteer project which documents how to hand-make a #Shrimp, a £1.40 circuit which directly substitutes for an Arduino Uno, documented at Following this approach can reduce the cost of replicating existing projects using the Arduino by another order of magnitude for hobbyists and classrooms.