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Tiny computer costs little, does a lot–just don’t eat it

Jeff Foxworthy (“If you ever cut your grass and found a car … you might be a redneck”) tells a story about his 5-year-old daughter and her computer skills, comparing them with the paddle ball skills of his own generation at the same age. So it was when my adult son informed me he had received a $30 gift from his boss: a new computer. What is the relevance of cheap, open computers to business? Read on.

My son’s workplace had offered to get gifts for its employees that were relevant to work learning. My son asked for a Raspberry Pi. Now a Hostess Fruit Pie, that I understand; they are delicious but have around as many calories as a Big Mac, so not a regular part of my diet anymore. But no, this is a little computer the size of a deck of playing cards with all of its insides showing. After I gingerly inspected it, my son went about using it to control his media center, so we could wirelessly and remotely play holiday songs from our smartphones and iPads and broadcast them throughout his house.

I have, in my dark, deep and distant past, programmed point-of-sale systems, installed networks and done quite a bit of hardware support. The Raspberry Pi seemed like something very different—a little teeny-tiny brain that anyone brave in heart and willing to do a little searching on the Web could use to do a myriad of things.

On the order of eight million of this particular brand of cheap little computers called Raspberry Pi have been sold over the last four years. They don’t come equipped with monitors, keyboards, cases or storage memory; you have to figure out how to download an operating system onto it, and if you go for the five dollar version (YES! New computers for five dollars!), you may have to purchase little metal pins to use some of the ports. But these “price of a semi-decent dinner out” computers are inspiring some incredible projects and offering an opportunity for today’s generation of 5-year-olds to outcompute 23-year-olds, like Jeff’s daughter now, while Jeff and others of my generation are still trying to fix the elastic on our paddle ball.

Cheap, tiny, flexible computers
For five dollars (if you can find it) you can buy a bare-bones computer. You can probably find everything you need to do the basics with it lying around your home or office—USB mouse and keyboard, an old micro-SD memory card and power cable (Android phone users have these lying around; sorry iPhone users, but they are cheap—the cables, not the users) from your last cell phone, an HDMI-ready monitor and mini-HDMI cable. Move up to the $30 version, and you have more power, more ports, more memory, and more flexibility. There’s still no case for free, however.

The Raspberry Pi runs many different operating systems, especially versions of Linux, but there’s even a variant of Windows 10 available for free. Here was a new one on me: It has a GPIO (General Purpose I/O expansion board) connector; I had to look that up. It took me long enough to remember the now defunct PCMCIA—either Personal Computer Memory Card International Association or People Can’t Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms.

Many of us have old smartphones lying around, which may offer similar or better power and memory, but they don’t have the flexibility, even if you “jail break” them (the process of removing the restrictions of the smartphone manufacturer so you can run unauthorized software or make other tweaks to your phone). You probably won’t be doing a lot of major programming on your smartphone or pad. You are also very limited in attaching external devices, other than Bluetooth, to your phone. While Android owners can take advantage of USB On-the-Go to attach USB devices very inexpensively, it is much more expensive to do so with iPhones and iPads. And while I mentioned using an old smartphone with Skype as an entryway monitor last month, the risks associated with losing a five-dollar computer are much fewer than that of a smartphone.

So these devices have specifications like a smartphone or tablet but with significantly more expansion and flexibility, but they are not designed from scratch for portability (battery power, protection). And something else a smartphone offers—sensors. Sensors (built-in accelerometer, compass, gyroscope, magnetometer) are one of the features I saw in the iPhone way back when I thought they could set it apart from other computers. However, you can add sensors very inexpensively to Raspberry Pi.

Why Pi? DIY?
Eight million units. Purchased by schools, hobbyists, programmers, businesses. I had mentioned my son using one for wireless sharing, and a little bit of money and some sharp wits can leverage that $30 computer as a major component in a home theater and media center. (The $30 version has some very advanced audio and video capability; for those keeping score at home, the phrase HD 1080P by 30 fps may be meaningful.)

Do it yourself is key here. Computer types are using them for teeny-tiny home or business servers: webservers, webcam servers, shared storage. Hardware types use them for rapid prototyping. Media businesses are using them to run digital signage. The Raspberry Pi Foundation’s website documents uses from running musical Christmas lights to robots to laser engravers using old parts from CD players to … well, you name it. And, yes kids, you can play Minecraft (Pi) on it.

Is it just the low cost that makes this possible? There is huge community support. There are ample documentation and examples. It is somewhat like the phenomenon when the Lego folks first came up with their Lego Mindstorms, with brains, motors, sensors … but those cost hundreds of dollars. (Oh yeah, clever folks have already figured out how to use the LEGO Mindstorms stuff with Raspberry Pi.)

There is “competition” in the teeny-tiny cheap market. A colleague of mine is using Arduino (a programmable microcontroller) to work with some sensors to remotely monitor water levels in Mexico. In that case, a full computer, even a five-dollar computer, is overkill. Other cheap computers include the community developed BeagleBoard, PCDuino, CubieBoard and Goosenberry. For what it’s worth, you can find over 3,600 related items on Amazon.com for Raspberry Pi; for these others, there are less than 300 related items in total.

I was hesitant to write about Raspberry Pi, as I cannot figure out yet why I would buy one and DIY with it. But eight million others have a different viewpoint, and your staff may be able to think of incredible ways to use it in your business. Where’s my paddle ball?

Eric E. Cohen, CPA, of PwC, is spending his time reinventing how accounting information is shared, with XBRL International.

1/29/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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