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How a $9 computer could change the way we think about computing

For $9, you will soon be able to buy an insanely cheap computer the size of a credit card that runs Linux and comes with a 1 GHz processor, 512 MB RAM, 4 GB storage, and built-in WiFi and Bluetooth. While that’s enough computing power to surf the Web, play video games, check e-mail and use word processing software, the real potential is what DIY innovators, hackers and inventors will do with this cheap computing platform once they integrate it into other projects.

The world’s first $9 computer — known as C.H.I.P. — won’t be available for shipping until early 2016. For now, it’s still only a Kickstarter project with nearly a month to go – but the promise and potential of a crazy cheap computer is so alluring that the Oakland, Calif. company behind the project – Next Thing Co. – has already raised more than $925,000 from more than 18,000 backers in just a few days, easily blowing past the $50,000 they had hoped to raise via Kickstarter.

C.H.I.P. comes from the same innovation oeuvre as the $35 Raspberry Pi — a credit-card size computer that is cheap, portable, highly programmable and highly connectable. So if Raspberry Pi has managed to attract a worldwide user community at a price point of $35, you can just imagine what the lower-cost, more powerful C.H.I.P. might be able to do once it attracts a critical mass of users.

As the founders of C.H.I.P. point out on their Kickstarter project page, DIY innovators will have just about everything they need – a processor, a way to exchange data with other devices and a way to power everything – to do some amazing things. Since C.H.I.P. is designed to work with any screen using a built-in composite output and comes with WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, you essentially have a two-inch desktop computer once you attach a mouse and keyboard wirelessly.

Given the connectivity and programmability of C.H.I.P., we’re potentially going to see all kinds of hybrid hardware devices that can be easily programmed to perform unique tasks. DIY innovators and makers will change how objects behave, blurring the line between wearable devices, mobile devices and the Internet of Things.

Before Next Thing Co. came up with C.H.I.P., for example, they launched OTTO, a customizable digital camera powered by Raspberry Pi that exists primarily for one reason — to help people take animated GIFs. You might not pay hundreds of dollars to buy a camera with animated GIF functionality, but you might pay significantly less to buy a hackable GIF camera. As a result, Next Thing Co. lined up 414 backers on Kickstarter for OTTO in mid-2014, raising a total of $71,559 for the project.

In the same spirit of free-spirited experimentation, Next Thing Co. is now encouraging people to come up with creative uses for C.H.I.P., mostly by making everything totally open source and reaching out to the maker community for their ingenuity and insights.

The portability of C.H.I.P. is one big attraction. For an extra $40, you can turn C.H.I.P. into PocketC.H.I.P., a portable computer that can be taken anywhere. Once you slide C.H.I.P. into an enclosure, you suddenly have a device with a 4.3-inch touchscreen display, a full QWERTY keyboard, and an internal battery that powers PocketC.H.I.P. for up to five hours. And PocketC.H.I.P., just like C.H.I.P., connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi.

Already, there have been some cool ideas floated on the Internet for C.H.I.P. There have been ideas for wearable devices, gaming devices, robots and a network of solar-powered air quality sensors. There have also been ideas for bringing $9 computers to cash-strapped rural school districts and ideas for setting up backcountry wildlife, weather and seismic monitoring stations.

Eventually, according to Internet of Things proponents, every “dumb” object will become a “smart” object once it’s connected to the Internet. So how about products powered by C.H.I.P. that are unlike any we know today – such as a “smart table” hooked up to the Internet that monitors conversations at meetings, takes notes for you automatically and then syncs those notes with your tablet or smartphone?

If C.H.I.P. takes off, it will be interesting to see whether the big tech companies are going to follow, or whether they consider that a $9 computer is just not worth their time. It’s not so much a race to the bottom — tech companies being forced to create cheaper Nests, cheaper Chromebooks or cheaper smartphones — as it is a race to the top – tech innovators trying to create computing devices that don’t fit readily into any specific product category, but that are capable of doing very customizable tasks.

Ultimately, the future of tech could be determined by today’s kids playing around with $9 computers, all of who learned to code from kindergarten (either with Raspberry Pi or C.H.I.P.), and all of whom are not shackled by the ideological baggage of assuming what devices are supposed to do or not do. Adults know that tables are not supposed to be computers — but kids don’t. That’s when the really exciting innovation might occur, when the next generation radically rethinks how our everyday world can be made better with cheap computers.