Upward Mobility: The Forgotten Mobile Platforms

They may not be as pretty, but low cost embedded computing is a big thing

When thinking about the mobile development space, it’s easy to make the mistake of restricting it to smartphones. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and the stragglers dominate the news, and seeing someone typing away at a handset has become ubiquitous. But below the surface, there’s another set of mobile platforms that tend to get ignored, outside the DIY community, but are revolutionizing the world in their own way.

Traditionally, embedded computing was restricted to high-volume commercial applications (e.g., smart refrigerators and automobile control systems.) The intrepid hackers dabbled, but the amount of hardware knowledge required to get a CPU, memory and I/O logic onto a breadboard prevented any but the most experienced from implementing their own low-power embedded creations.

That is not the case anymore. The Arduino and it’s many clones started the revolution, by giving anyone with a few twenties in their wallet the ability to purchase a self-contained platform that only needed a battery to come to life. But for all the amazing things that the Arduino has enabled, it still had a high barrier to entry. It has pretty restrictive memory limits, can be tricky to download software to, and even with the many add-on shields available, is still fairly limited in its capabilities.

The Raspberry Pi has completed the evolution of the turn-key embedded platform. It comes with a full Linux operating system, can drive HDMI video output, and is actually cheaper than most Arduinos. While it’s heavier (45g vs 30g), it’s not by much. The one place that the Arduino beats the Pi outright is on power consumption, because the Arduino can run forever on batteries, while the Raspberry Pi really requires external power. People have gotten 18+ hours of life out of a Pi using a Li-on external battery pack, but you’re not going to just strap a couple of 9vs on it and run.

There are lots of mobile applications where this isn’t an issue, however. If you already have a power source (in your car, boat, plane, or rocket ship, for example), you can just plug it in. And in those applications, you suddenly have a full-fledged general purpose computer, complete with networking and video (for the additional power and financial costs of an LCD display).

But whether you go hard-core with an Arduino, or upscale with a Pi, there is no barrier to creating embedded mobile applications anymore. As a result, we’re not only seeing a renaissance in DIY projects, but also a new generation of Kickstarter-style products using low cost embedded computing as a core technology. They may not have the glamor of an iPhone 5s or a Galaxy, but they could be bigger game-changers in the long run.

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