Smartphones as Cheap Computers

The rise of the Raspberry Pi has been meteoric this year and, although designed as a tool for teaching children Computer Science, the number of uses people have found for the cheap machine are endless.

The Pi is likely to top a million units this year (it was launched in February) and it shows not only how much demand there was for a small, cheap, low-powered computer, but also just how many things could be done by providing low-cost hardware.

At around £27 (the price seems to have crept up, but possibly because they’re now made in the UK and come with twice the RAM) for the bare board it’s very affordable, cheap to the point buying multiple isn’t a stretch (add a screen, case, SD card, power lead, HDMI cable, keyboard and mouse and it becomes a bit less so, granted).

Running the Pi is an ARM processor similar to the ones in many smartphones, though slower than most new ones.  Having seen the price of budget smartphones recently I was amazed at how cheap a new device is, and it comes with a touchscreen, OS, WiFi, case and power supply, all things the Pi lacks.

It was the price that really caught my attention (as low as £30).  I paid more for my alarm clock than you can pick up a phone for these days.  There are plenty of alarm clock apps and while it may not have been as good as my dedicated unit at some things, you can install (or build) whatever app you like, with whatever functionality (such as Winter Wake-up to get you up early if your commute is likely to be longer due to adverse weather).  Even bottom-end phones come with a screen that’s comparable in size to my alarm clock, has a built-in power back-up (i.e. a battery), probably draws less power and can be used for other things.

Alarm clocks are just one application, I remember being awed by a touchscreen kitchen computer before the iPad was released.  These days you’d probably just use a tablet but a smartphone could do all of that too (granted on a much smaller screen, but also at a fraction of the cost).

The likes of SSTL and NASA are experimenting with smartphones to control their satellites as a much cheaper alternative to custom-developed electronics, while plenty of people are already using them for a number of tasks that were certainly not in the original design scope, including:

  • Webcam
  • VOIP handset
  • Remote control
  • Mouse
  • Media player
  • GPS
  • Radio
  • Media server
  • Scanner
  • Web server
  • iPod Touch alternative

So how long before handset manufacturers look for a new market and start selling smartphones as low-budget, ubiquitous computers or replacements for dedicated hardware?

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