Open Technology: One Board to Rule Them All

If you happen to be only a bit like me, you have been yearning for the day when useful technology would be affordable even for the less fortunate; help us save resources and money; reduce the distance between either end of the world to milliseconds rather than seconds, minutes, or even hours; ease the pain of daily chores by way of more efficient communication and co–operation, and so let us squeeze a bit of extra time out of every day to spend with people and things most precious to us.

Right, but what are the odds to ever see that happen? Isn’t this vision just part of a weird daydream, unlikey to ever take shape and become reality? Was I — like quite a few others out there, I suspect — fancying a digital revolution that would be worthy of such a label?

Until a few months ago, I would have agreed. Right now, as I’m writing these lines, I am not so sure about it anymore. I think, hope, want to believe, that I have glimpsed a silver lining on the horizon.

Raspberry Pi 2 in clear case

Figure 1: Raspberry Pi 2 in a clear case

By now, there is no more need to introduce the Raspberry Pi, I think. The precious reader has at least once heard of this cheap single–board computer the size of a credit card, developed to help introduce school children to the fine art of coding, or at least heard rumour of a project to this end, initiated and led by a fellow called Eben Upton. “Yes, but what’s the fuss”, one who has heard about it but never actually seen one in action might wonder.

Actually, Size and Design Do Matter

Well, it’s not its speed (upper–class mobile phones or tablet computers still defeat it hands down), and the price depends on a lot of factors unrelated to the product’s quality. Meanwhile, there are even clones out there that are (slightly) faster, or cheaper, or (enitrely) open source. Nevertheless, the Raspberry Pi project deserves to be acknowledged as having kicked off a “revolution” that might well lead to a desirable evolution in modern computing.

What really distinguished the “Pi” from the start were its form factor (credit card, as already mentioned) and its predictability in terms of design. It may sound like small fry to some, but there is hardly anything more annoying when it comes to implementation of technology than constant design changes (i.e., form factor, layout).

Upon a quick glance you won’t be able to tell the first and latest (version 3, at the time of writing) Pi apart. Upon closer inspection, you realise all the important features (in terms of hardware compatibility), like the position and types of various interfaces, but also the mounting points (the little holes drilled into the board to attach it to other devices or objects) are identical across versions. These aspects, irrelevant as they may appear at first, are one success criterion, making the Pi so ridiculously versatile. The other is the simple architecture that makes it compatible with a wide range of software.

Versatility (Flexibility) and Predictability are Important Success Criteria for Open Technology

It goes without saying that most of the projects derived from the Pi so far are proofs of concept, really. They may be smart, funny, surprising, but they are not fit to meet the average user’s daily needs yet. Nevertheless, they — from the weirdest spare–time project and useful little gadgets to the most astonishing academic setup — prove both people’s creative power and the Pi’s potential to break new ground for it. Most amazingly, all these projects seem to enjoy a friendly reception by the community, and co–exist peacefully (at least for the time being).

Pi–Top and Pi–Top CEED

Open pi-top laptop showing the hub and raspberry pi

Figure 2: Raspberry Pi 3 and hub in the pi–top case

As much as I adore many of the projects based on the Pi, I cannot seem to find the time to try and accomplish my own (so many ideas, so little time); there’s always something more urgently demanding my attention.

Fortunately, I came across CEED Ltd, another “maker start up”, creating kits to easily tranform your Pi into a laptop (pi–top) or all–in–one desktop (pi–top CEED) computer and add–ons to give new functionalities to either.

This modular system makes use of a hub (the small board on the left in the image above) to connect the Pi (on the right) with the battery, monitor, keyboard, and touch pad. Two Allen keys (shipping with the kit) were all it took to assemble the device. Connecting all moduls and clipping the laptop body shut took about twenty minutes (because I was extra careful not to use too much force).

As you can see, there is still plenty of space left. Some may find it useful to add speakers, but I’m fine with using headphones via the Pi’s audio input, if need be.

Granted, it’s a far cry from your average fancy notebook computer available in every computer store out there, but let’s have this conversation again in two years’ time. At the rate the Pi has developed since it first emerged, it is well possible that the then latest version makes you reconsider your choice. If you have ever tried to find and replace a single component to update your laptop, you know what I mean.

Meanwhile, I can connect my Pi to the large screen and keyboard I already had, take a fully working, independent laptop everywhere I please, or bring just the Raspberry Pi itself (in its proper case, a cardboard box, or even a plastic pouch) to connect it to a keyboard (via USB) and a monitor (via HDMI) availabe, and still work on a computer I’m used to.

As for the old one (version 2), there are plenty of projects I can think of to still put it to good use – or I simply keep it in a drawer as a backup, should the one in the laptop die unexpectedly. They both have the same software (out of the wealth of operating systems available, I chose Debian 8) installed. All it takes is taking the SD card out of the one and put it into the other.

I am fully aware that the Raspberry Pi (or pi–top or pi–top CEED) is not likely to have every computer user out there covered (yet). The project is still only in its early stages, and convincing anyone to instantly convert was not my intention, to begin with.

I merely tried to show that (and how) open technology can work. As I see it, the Raspberry Pi is an excellent example of open technology (in computing). When (and if) we are prepared to embrace this offer — whether by using the Pi itself, or any clones and derivations thereof, or products employing similar concepts — is for each of us to decide at our own discretion.