November 3, 2012

The Hobbyist Computing Revolution: Take 2

Well here we are. The Post-PC era. At least that’s what we’re led to believe nowadays. I’ll admit…I’m only 21 years old, but already I’m beginning to miss the common act of picking out custom PC components, building out that bad-ass system, and configuring my software just right. I don’t think that part of me will ever die, but it’s quite evident that times are changing. Younger generations have definitely not had the same exposure or experience with computing. A lot of people are saddened by the fact that younger generations may never have this opportunity. That it’s a generation being handed an iPad without an explanation of how any of it works.

Although this era may be coming to a close, a whole different era is just now beginning. I think we’re right in the middle of the next wave of hobbyist computing. Thinking back to my younger years (again, I admit I’m still a youngling!), I remember putting together my own 486 and Pentium systems. Some of my earliest memories involve using a Compaq Presario running at 75MHz.

With the launch of the latest Arduino Due, it got me thinking. This guy that was just released is clocking in at a whopping 84MHz. Now hold on a second…you’re telling me that this tiny little chip that I can buy for $8 is faster than one of the first $1000 PCs I’ve used? And even better – everything about Arduino is open source. I would argue that before Arduino, hobbyists wishing to get into the microcontroller scene had a pretty high barrier to entry. Those that were very dedicated were able to read through the datasheets, hack on low level C/assembly code, and debug for hours to make their simple embedded apps function. Arduino changed all of that. Arduino put hardware in the hands of everyone and made it intuitive. This is exactly what the hobbyist (or MAKE) culture needed to flourish.

In the age of Apple-esque devices designed to never be disassembled by the mere mortal, this is the alternative. The alternative that puts hardware back in the hands of hackers. With the 32-bit Due released and the $25 Raspberry Pi out in the wild, obtaining hardware is becoming more accessible every single day. We’ve already seen real time operating systems ported to Arduino and it’s only a matter of time until real full blown operating systems are running on the Arduino platform. Now of course, SoCs are essentially just the components of a traditional computer shrunk down and contained within a single package, but the software is what makes the hardware magical. These SoCs are quickly becoming the next generation platform for computing. Destroy a chip while developing? No big deal, just drop another chip on your board and carry on. Hardware is becoming a commodity.

Now it may just be the part of me thinking back to the magic of computing that excites me so much. The part that remembers so fondly the constant CPU upgrades, memory upgrades, and expansion cards swapped out. That magic feels like it’s returning again, though. The magic where every clock cycle counts, every KB of memory means that much more, and the added capability of each PCI card. But it’s happening again. And the best part? Tinkerers and hackers are in the driver seat this time around. We decide what hardware is included in our devices. We write the software; the drivers. Weare completely in control of the device. It’s incredible to see on such a large scale. I can’t wait to see these little chips pave the way for the 2.0 hobbyist PC revolution. One that I’m already a part of.

© Eric Barch 2023