What happens when computers are cheaper than LEGO blocks?


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.

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