When the first Mac computer came out in 1984, it cost nearly $2,500 and had a floppy drive for storage. In 2016, a spate of computers with a price as low as $5 and a lot more storage are hitting the market, and they may be opening up a new era of experimentation.
Recently, I got a look at one of these low-cost computers — the $9 CHIP, which has 4 gigabytes of storage.
It is very basic. It fits in the palm of my hand and has various electronic components soldered on. Frankly, it looks like something I'd find in a repair shop. But it's actually easy to set up. It can connect to Wi-Fi. It has Bluetooth.
Dave Rauchwerk, the CEO of Next Thing Co., which makes the CHIP, showed me his Kickstarter-backed computer. "When you take it out of the box you can connect a keyboard, Bluetooth and mouse really easily," he says. "It also has a USB port so if you wanted to, you could plug into any old keyboard you can find."
The keyboard, mouse and screen are not included, so that would add to the price. But getting those on the cheap is pretty easy these days.
CHIP's Kickstarter campaign got the backing of nearly 40,000 people and raised $2 million. One pledge of $150 came from a teacher at the Nelson County Area Technology Center, a technical high school in Kentucky.
Its principal, Jeremy Booher, says cost has always gotten in the way of giving computers to all of his 400 or so students.
"Any of my programs, it's 'That costs too much. You can't buy it,' " he says. "But with a $9 price point it almost virtually eliminates that excuse."
And CHIP is easy to use, says 17-year-old student Jacob Smith.
"With a normal computer we have to pull the case apart and work around all these big pieces," he says. "So this has just been much easier to learn and work off of."
Smith's class got to see CHIP before most people because his teacher helped back the Kickstarter. The class took apart a Star Wars toy — the Millennium Falcon — and wired it with LED lights using CHIP. Booher says what's great is that the students can learn something while they're having fun.
"And this is one way to do it, by intriguing their interest and seeing what's on the cutting edge of technology," Booher says. "If we were still using typewriters and using Microsoft DOS, then obviously people come in and fall asleep."
And unlike Microsoft products, CHIP has both open-source software (Linux) and hardware.
And students are just the start of the groups who might be excited by this cheap little computer. The CHIP is one of several very low-cost basic computers — under $100 — that have hit the market in the past year or will be on the market in the coming year. Most can be purchased online. There's the BeagleBone, the Endless Mini and the Raspberry Pi Zero.
All this is possible because the prices of microprocessors and other computer components have fallen.
Tom Petrocelli, an analyst with Neuralytix, an IT market research firm, says we are at a moment similar to the one that happened about three decades ago with software.
"When software became a more open endeavor, when anyone could afford to buy a PC and write code in their basement or in their den, we saw all kinds of software come out. All kinds of applications," he says.
Petrocelli predicts that cheap hardware will spark a similar era in the U.S. and around the world for inventors and tinkerers to find uses we can't even imagine. Some of them could even come from that group of students in Kentucky.