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Invasion of the Tiny, Linux-Powered PCs

By Katherine Noyes
May 31, 2012 5:00 AM PT

Bigger may be better if you're from Texas, but it's becoming increasingly clear to the rest of us that it really is a small world after all.

Invasion of the Tiny, Linux-Powered PCs

Case in point? None other than what one might reasonably call the invasion of tiny Linux PCs going on all around us.

We've got the Raspberry Pi, we've got the Cotton Candy. Add to those the Mele A1000, the VIA APC, the MK802 and more, and it's becoming increasingly difficult not to compute like a Lilliputian.

Where's it all going? That's what Linux bloggers have been pondering in recent days. Down at the seedy Broken Windows Lounge the other night, Linux Girl got an earful.

It's 'Fantastic'

"Linux has been heading towards one place for many years now: complete and total world domination!" quipped Thoughts on Technology blogger and Bodhi Linux lead developer Jeff Hoogland.

"All joking aside, these new devices simply further showcase Linux's unmatched ability to be flexible across an array of different devices of all sizes and power," Hoogland added.

"Having a slew of devices that are powerful enough for users to browse the web -- which, let's be honest, is all a good deal of people do these days -- for under 100 USD is fantastic," he concluded.

'It Only Gets More Exciting'

Similarly, "I believe that the medley of tiny Linux PCs we're seeing hitting the market lately is the true sign of the Post PC Era," suggested Google+ blogger Linux Rants.

"The smartphone started it, but the Post PC Era will begin in earnest when the functionality that we currently see in the home computer is replaced by numerous small appliance-type devices," Linux Rants explained. "These tiny Linux PCs are the harbinger of those appliances -- small, low-cost, programmable devices that can be made into virtually anything the owner desires."

Other devices we're already seeing include "the oven that you can turn on with a text message, the espresso machine that you can control with a text message, home security systems and cars that can be controlled from your smartphone," he added. "This is where the Post PC Era begins, and it only gets more exciting from here."

'There Is No Reason Not to Do It'

This is "definitely the wave of the future," agreed Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien.

"Devices of all kinds are getting smaller and smaller, while simultaneously increasing their power," O'Brien explained. "Exponential growth does that over time.

"My phone in my pocket right now has more computing power than the rockets that went to the moon," he added. "And if you look ahead, a few more turns of exponential growth means we'll have the equivalent of a full desktop computer the size of an SD card within a few years."

At that point, "everything starts to be computerized, because adding a little intelligence is so cheap there is no reason not to do it," O'Brien concluded.

'We're Approaching That Future'

Indeed, "many including myself have long been harping on the fact that today's computers are orders of magnitude faster than early systems on which we ran graphic interfaces and got work done, and yet are dismissed as toys," Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza told Linux Girl.

"A friend suggested to me once that eventually microwave ovens would contain little Unix servers 'on a chip' because that would be basically all you could get, because it would actually be cheaperto use such a system when given the cost of developing an alternative," he said. "Seeing the cost of these new products it looks to me like we're approaching that future rapidly.

"There has always been demand for low-cost computers, and the massive proliferation of low-cost, low-power cores has pushed their price down to the point where we can finally have them," Espinoza concluded.

"Even adjusted for inflation," he said, "many of these computers are an order of magnitude cheaper than the cheapest useful home computers from the time when personal computing began to gain popularity, and yet they are certainly powerful enough to serve many roles including many people's main or even only 'computer.'"

'It Gives Me Hope'

Consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack was similarly enthusiastic.

"I love it," Mack told Linux Girl.

"When I was a child, my parents brought home all sorts of fun things to tinker with, and I learned while doing it," he explained. "But these last few years it seems like the learning electronics and their equivalents have disappeared into a mass of products that are only for what the manufacturer designed them for and nothing else.

"I am loving the return of my ability to tinker," Mack concluded. "It gives me hope that there can be a next generation of kids who can love the enjoyment of simply creating things."

'They Look a Bit Expensive'

Not everyone was thrilled, however.

"Okay, I am not all that excited about the invasion of the tiny PC," admitted Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor.

"With 7-inch Android tablets with capacitive displays, running Android 4.0 and with access to Google Play's Android app market, 8 GB or storage expandable via a Micro SD card, 1080p video playback, a USB port and HDMI out and 3000 to 4000 mAh batteries starting at US$90, it is a bit hard to get excited about these tiny PCs," Lim explained.

"Despite the low prices of the tiny PCs, they all look a bit expensive when compared to what is already in the market," he opined.

'These Devices Have a Niche'

The category really isn't even all that new, Slashdot blogger hairyfeet opined.

"There have been mini ARM-based Linux boxes for several years now," he explained. "From portable media players to routers to set-top boxes, there are a ton of little bitty boxes running embedded Linux."

It's not even quite right to call such devices PCs "because PC has an already well-defined meaning: it was originally 'IBM PC compatible,'" hairyfeet added. "Even if you give them the benefit of the doubt, PCs have always been general use computers, and these things are FAR from general use."

Rather, "they are designed with a very specific and narrow job in mind," he said. "Trying to use them as general computers would just be painful."

So, "in the end these devices have a niche, just as routers and beagleboards and the pi does, but that niche is NOT general purpose in any way, shape, or form," hairyfeet concluded.

'Opportunities for Specialists'

Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the Ledger SMB project, considered the question through the lens of evolutionary ecology.

"In any ecological system an expanding niche allows for differentiation, and a contracting niche requires specialization," Travers pointed out. 'So, for example, if a species of moth undergoes a population explosion, predators of that moth will often specialize and be more picky as to what prey they go after."

The same thing happens with markets, Travers suggested.

"When a market expands, it provides opportunities for specialists, but when it contracts, only the generalists can survive," he told Linux Girl.

'Niche Environments'

The tiny new devices are "replacements for desktop and laptop systems in niche environments," Travers opined.

"In many environments these may be far more capable than traditional systems," he added.

The bottom line, though, "is that the Linux market is growing at a healthy rate," Travers concluded.

'The Right Way to Do IT'

"Moore's Law allows the world to do more with less hardware and so does FLOSS," blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl. "It's the right way to do IT rather than paying a bunch for the privilege of running the hardware we own."

Last year was a turning point, Pogson added.

"More people bought small, cheap computers running */Linux than that other OS, and the world saw that things were fine without Wintel," he explained. "2012 will bring more of the same."

By the end of this year, in fact, "the use of GNU/Linux on small cheap computers doing what we used to do with huge hair-drying Wintel PCs will be mainstream in many places on Earth," Pogson predicted. "In 2012 we will see a major decline in the number of PCs running that other OS. We will see major shelf-space given to */Linux PCs at retail."

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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